All eyes were on Rachel Gantman.
She was shoulder-deep inside the rectum of a Cal Poly dairy cow when she realized something was wrong. She had explored different cows’ rectal tracts many times before, but never had one felt this warm and sticky.
As she heard the plastic glove crinkle on one of her arms, she looked down and saw her mistake — the protective plastic was, in fact, on the wrong arm. Gantman’s ungloved arm was now up to her armpit inside the cow, caked with ripe manure from its rectal tract. As classmates gawked in amusement, Gantman did what any other teaching assistant would — retracted her arm, flicked off the thick manure in one swift thwack and continued helping a student accomplish the task at hand: feeling for the cow’s cervix through its rectal wall.
For Artificial Insemination and Embryo Biotechnology (DSCI 330) students, this is just another day of Learn by Doing.
A new type of learning
Artificial Insemination and Embryo Biotechnology, a course typically offered fall quarter and open to all majors, promises to teach students everything they need to know about artificially inseminating a dairy cow. In lectures and labs, students learn and practice techniques in collecting, evaluating and processing semen, as well as performing insemination procedures. They learn how to diagnose fertility problems and treat reproductive disorders, and become familiar with embryo culturing, manipulation and transfer.
Animal science professor Dr. Joy Altermatt warns that the class is not for those who dislike smelling, seeing and touching manure.
“If people are not covered with manure, they’re not doing their job,” Altermatt said. “You can’t be afraid of biological materials to be in this class.”
For those who can get past the stench and decide to enroll, be prepared for a new approach to learning, Altermatt said.
“They’ll certainly be exposed to a world that they might not have believed had existed,” Altermatt said. “The students have to learn in a whole new way. It’s not just intellectual concepts, it’s a physical challenge. Their hands have to learn concepts that their brain can’t just pick up from reading or a lecture.”
To Altermatt, the best part of teaching the course is working up close with the dairy cows.
“The cows teach the students even more than I do,” Altermatt said. “It’s very rewarding to bridge the gap between the animals and the students.”
Getting their hands dirty
For animal science senior Gantman, nothing parallels the hands-on knowledge she gained from this class.
“I’m getting practical experience,” Gantman said. “I’m learning more about myself and what I can and can’t do. I’m getting a lot more out of it than I would sitting in a classroom.”
Gantman, a dairy science minor, took the course Fall 2015 to learn more about the scientific side of dairy reproduction. By the end of the quarter, she applied to be a teaching assistant for Altermatt and couldn’t wait to get more first-hand experience, she said.
“Everything you learn and do in class, you apply the first day of lab,” Gantman said. “First lab, you go out and you stick your hand in a cow. You’re definitely given some guidance, but the teachers want you to explore and learn how to deal with unpredictable situations.”
The most challenging procedure students learn is how to pass through a cow’s cervix with a sperm pipette gun.
“It was just the most satisfying thing,” Gantman said. “The first time you pass the cervix, it’s like having a child. It’s so exciting, but it’s really hard. People think they’ll pass the cervix on the first try, but it takes weeks.”
Gantman isn’t the only student whose thrill for learning in the class led her to take a teaching assistant position with Altermatt the following year.
Dairy science junior Haley Witt took the course in Fall 2015 and served as a teaching assistant the following year. Witt learned skills both as a student and a teaching assistant that have prepared her for a future in veterinary medicine, she said. After Cal Poly, Witt plans on attending veterinary school where she will focus on both large and small animal studies.
“This class has taught me about different scenarios I may encounter in the real world,” Witt said. “If a cow is unable to retain a pregnancy, I could possibly identify why.”
Witt and her classmates were taught how to use an ultrasound to identify if a cow is cystic or not.
A cystic cow is one that has cystic ovarian disease, meaning its ovaries are growing cysts that interfere with the cow’s fertility.
“If the cow proved to be cystic, then we knew why she was experiencing low fertility,” Witt said.
While lectures were valuable for learning new concepts, it was the labs that took it one step further, Witt said.
“If Dr. Altermatt had just shown us a picture, I’m not sure students would have retained as much,” Witt said. “It’s that hands-on experience we received that really solidified all that we were taught.”
Agricultural science senior Veronica Lemus took the class in Fall 2016, when Witt served as a teaching assistant. As an animal science concentration, Lemus was looking to learn more about dairy cow reproduction and how the process of artificial insemination works.
“We had three or four opportunities to go inside the cow and feel for the uterus, the cervix and all parts that are necessary for learning how to properly artificially inseminate,” Lemus said. “We also got to extract oocytes from a uterus, watch the process being done from a live cow and learn how to examine a sperm sample. It was a lot of work, but definitely supported Learn by Doing in every aspect.”
Lemus plans to use her skills indirectly by becoming a high school agriculture teacher and an adviser for Future Farmers of America. Even though Lemus won’t work on a dairy farm herself, her first-hand experience will benefit the kids she teaches, she said.
When it comes to Gantman’s future career in dairy science, all she knows is that it won’t be at a desk. To her, nothing beats being outside and working one-on-one with the dairy cows.
“No offense, but I don’t want to sit in a cubicle all day,” Gantman said. “I just want to stick my hands up cows.”