PEER outreach teaches veterinarian and students

College, state VMA helping veterinarians excite children about the profession
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Professor Larry Johnson, PhD
Texas A&M Professor Larry Johnson, PhD, shows a class of middle school children a preserved respiratory organ as part of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences' Partnership for Environmental Education and Rural Health program. The goal of the program, for which Johnson is the principal investigator, is to excite young people about the world of science and discovery.

Veterinarians might be thinking about how they can contribute to educating today's youth, now that school is back in full gear.

The idea of veterinarians reaching out to their communities through in-school visits is nothing new.

What is novel are the programs and materials offered at the national, state, and college levels to make math and science—and the veterinary profession in general—more relevant and exciting to students.

In doing so, volunteers could potentially recruit future veterinarians and also help themselves by improving their clientele base, visibility in the community, and communication skills.

Larry Johnson, PhD, and Dr. William Klemm, professors at Texas A&M University, for nearly a decade have run the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences' Partnership for Environmental Education and Rural Health outreach program, which is funded by the National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health.

PEER focuses on producing middle school curriculum, training teachers, and providing professional visits to rural schools.

The most recent offshoot, the Veterinarian's Black Bag, has received more than $1 million over five years; it is in its second year.

The Veterinarian's Black Bag not only prepares free presentation materials and techniques for veterinarians but also includes hands-on, follow-up lesson plans for teachers to continue after the visit.

So far, at least five presentations have been developed on various topics, from spaying and neutering to the use of animals in testing; the goal is to create 15 topics.

Through the program's Web site, veterinarians can access the expert presentation materials and techniques that otherwise would be difficult or time-consuming to obtain or develop.

Dr. Amy Delgado, a veterinarian graduate student at Texas A&M, recently made a presentation at a local middle school. She said the experience wasn't different because the information was very basic and well put-together.

"I was more worried about being too in-depth or getting over their heads," Dr. Delgado said.

Third-year veterinary students, through an elective course to hone non-technical skills, do all the work in conjunction with mentoring honors undergraduate students who also participate in the program.

Veterinarians can deviate from the material by telling anecdotes or bringing in tools, props, or even their own pet.

"We can use (kids') love for animals to stimulate people's knowledge about their environment and surroundings," Dr. Johnson said, giving the example of talking about obesity in animals and humans. "They learn about people even though we're talking about it from a veterinary angle."

Dr. Johnson says the program targets middle school-aged children "because that is when the kids decide to go for or be against math and science. If you wait till high school, like career day, that's too late. You have to give them a reason to do that math now."

Schools can use all the help they can get, Dr. Klemm says, after what he's seen firsthand.

He says many school districts, particularly in rural areas, have limited resources and a reduced pool of science teachers from which to hire because they don't have the money or an ideal location. As a result, students easily can lose interest, so additional stimuli are needed to provide application of the math and science they need to be learning now.

"We're graduating a whole potful of people who don't like science," Dr. Klemm says. "In this day and age, that's not good. There are cultures that care about science, and the U.S. isn't one of them."

Dr. Klemm hopes the Black Bag program eventually will be used by veterinarians throughout the country, or at least be used as a model at other colleges or state veterinary associations.

So far, Texas A&M just started working with veterinary colleges at five other universities—Cornell, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, Colorado State, and Washington State.

The materials will be available to those colleges, which plan to start implementing their own nontechnical courses for veterinary students.

State veterinary medical associations also can equip veterinarians for their foray into the schools.

Dr. Jon Klingborg, former president of the California VMA, led an initiative a few years ago to develop the association's educational outreach program.

Dr. Greg Wood
Dr. Greg Wood, a small animal veterinarian in Katy, Texas, has been visiting classrooms for two decades. He recently gave a half-day presentation to a kindergarten class about pet care, the importance of good grades, and the life of a veterinarian. Wood is one of the many veterinarians across Texas who visit local schools to encourage youth to pursue their goals.

"When you look at research, it's shocking, really. Most veterinarians knew they were going to be one from a very early age," Dr. Klingborg said. "I'm surprised veterinarians are surprised we need to reach young folks."

That's why he stresses engaging students early, which serves a dual purpose.

"In trying to mentor children and expose them to the profession, we may be creating future veterinarians, but we are definitely educating future pet owners," Dr. Klingborg said. "There's value, no matter how you look at it."

By that he means that children absorb the material and go home and educate their parents about pet ownership and good health care for animals.

"It's fabulous when an animal comes in the clinic when a third-grader created the opportunity to help the animal," Dr. Klingborg said.

When talking to older students, such as those in high school, Dr. Klingborg says there's still a lot of misinformation about what kind of skill set is necessary or what classes students should take in high school to prepare for college.

To help veterinarians with the educational outreach process, the CVMA developed the following multistep initiative:

  • Survey other states to see what other resources are available.
  • Create tools for veterinarians and staff to use in school settings and clinic settings, such as for children visiting on field trips and career days or even while a child waits during a pet's examination.
  • Distribute information sheets to teachers, counselors, and advisers.
  • Create curriculum and case presentations where children could work through cases, using the scientific method.
  • Create a mentoring manual that would put everything together.

The CVMA got as far as creating a PowerPoint program for veterinarians and staff to use in presentations to classrooms.

"Things are driven by energy and budget," Dr. Klingborg said. "There are a lot of other things we need to be doing."

AVMA at the ready

FutureVet Camp
Children receive recognition for taking in part in the 2008 FutureVet Camp at the 145th AVMA Annual Convention.

The AVMA recognizes the important role of teachers, counselors, and advisers in addition to veterinarians, senior veterinarian technicians, and veterinary students in guiding the careers of today's students.

Encouraging a love of math and science is key to developing essential skills in the veterinary profession, so making these topics accessible and engaging is all the more important in school.

The Association has created career materials and classroom activities for every grade level to inspire students to pursue careers in animal science, public health, and other areas of veterinary medicine.

Many of the following AVMA materials and lesson plans can be easily downloaded, and others are available on request. Call the AVMA at (800) 248-2862, for more information or visit and encourage a local teacher to look at the available resources.

In addition, the Association, working with the Banfield Charitable Trust, offers FutureVet, an innovative career discovery program that provides educational materials for veterinarians to reach out to students from kindergarten through college.

Each prepackaged tool kit is geared toward children in five age groups ranging from kindergarten through college. Kits include all the tools necessary for entertaining, engaging, and educational classroom visits and come with complete instructions, a presentation outline, and giveaways for the students. Each kit costs $95.

To learn more about the FutureVet program or to order a FutureVet kit, contact the Banfield Charitable Trust at (503) 922-5290.

Tips for schoolroom volunteers:

  • Arrange through the teachers the classes you will visit.
  • Consider potential hazards of items you bring to the school.
  • Avoid abstract concepts for more concrete examples, such as metaphors, analogies, and stories.
  • Use small words and avoid industry jargon or acronyms.
  • Try not to lecture longer than 10 minutes at a time. Break up the presentation with slides or hands-on activities, such as props or specimens to engage the students.
  • Look forward to the experience.

Source: Texas A&M PEER program