When Innovation and Passion Meet in the Classroom

Sept. 7, 2021

How innovative, strategic planning in preclinical curriculum prepares graduates to leave as successful, career-ready leaders of the communities they serve.


Since its inception, the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine has emphasized a student-centered approach to education. Innovative, strategic planning in the preclinical curriculum allows students to learn by doing and prepares graduates to leave as successful, career-ready leaders of the communities they serve. As early as week two, first-year veterinary students work with live animals to practice key skills such as the power of observation, animal behavior and non-verbal communication, fear-free handling, safety of restraint, and palpation. Non-animal teaching models augment live animal use so students can safely practice skills on manikins to build confidence before practicing on live animals.  

Dr. Ryane Englar, Director of Veterinary Skills Development and Associate Professor of Practice, conveyed the stark contrast between current instructional methods she and her team employ and the learning she underwent as a 2008 graduate from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “I attended vet school in a day and age when students were expected to sit in the lecture hall and be sponges. You soaked up knowledge and hoped that it would one day make sense. Unfortunately, that meant we could recall facts quite well but were often uncertain how to put those facts to the test. We came out book-smart but not street-smart.” Englar’s goal is to introduce experiential learning as early in the program as possible so students can contextualize what they are taught in other core courses and actively engage in vital skills they need to be successful. “It’s all well and good to learn what an intravenous catheter is and to memorize which sizes are appropriate for which animals, but at the end of the day, you have to actually insert one. Talking about the process only gets you so far. It’s about seeing and doing, rather than just hearing about it.” 

Models play a crucial role in the students’ learning process. In Englar’s experience, working with models is an essential first step to improving comfort and confidence. “If you’ve never drawn blood before, would you rather practice on a model or start with a live cow? My students consistently express concern that they might hurt an animal through learning. Using models is one way to eliminate the potential to cause harm while students are honing skills and mastering procedures that may be considered invasive to perform on a live animal.” For example, in a recent clinical skills lab, students practiced nasogastric intubation—a frequent practice for managing horses presenting with signs of colic—and abdominocentesis, a surgical puncture of the abdomen by a needle to withdraw fluid. While both skills are common in equine medicine, few students have prior experience with large animal care. Providing an opportunity to work on a model first helps develop the necessary hand-eye coordination and confidence before students apply the skill to live animals. Animal Care Manager Lisa Hallam, described the thoughtful process behind the nasogastric intubation model: “We were able to create a fake trachea as well as a fake esophagus, so students were able to feel the [anatomical] differences without having to use a live animal,” she said. Built as a complement to the students’ study of the gastrointestinal tract, Hallam created the abdominocentesis model for students to insert needles and retract fluids. The model provided a mock representation of what could happen if a spleen or other organ were accidentally hit upon insertion. A focus on the combined visual and tactile learning experience helps refine students’ understanding of the material and teaches them to approach cases with clinical reasoning. Students learn to evaluate facts and begin “not just to observe, but piece together knowledge” for themselves and recognize how to apply information to an actual case or procedure. 

To facilitate students’ experiential learning, the clinical skills team is committed to building whatever veterinary models they cannot find on the market, whether the limitation is due to the finite number of veterinary-specific models or, recently, due to COVID-19-related delays. Earlier this year, students began studying cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and to assist with delivery of the content, the college purchased an assortment of veterinary manikins. When thedid not arrive in time due to COVID-19 delaysVeterinary Technician Ashley Stubbs, got to work and built a model to facilitate the students’ approach to triage. Using punching balloons to imitate lungs and a deflated balloon outfitted with PVC piping to simulate intubation, Stubbs designed CPR models that enabled students to experience the hands-on training required to intervene in a critical emergency and run a CPR code. Using Stubbs’ model, students learned to apply the correct amount of pressure while performing CPR and practiced how to intubate an animal—key skills they will need in practice. Being a veterinarian “is very hands-on, so having that experience and being able to [learn how to] perform CPR in a situation that’s a little less stressful is very important,” Stubbs said. 

When technicians choose projects for creating practical aids, they consider and draw upon their extensive professional experience. Jen Yoon, a Veterinary Technician, recently called upon her own practical understanding when she built a model for anal gland expression. The design was made to aid students in learning the necessary technique and prepare them for what to expect during the process. Yoon said, “I’ve [loved] the creative aspect of coming up with different ways to simulate real-life experiences.” This approach makes the college’s mission of developing career-ready veterinarians possible. Englar shared, “We are who we are, and we can deliver great things for our students because of the varied experiences and insights of my team. Faculty may lead the laboratories, but the staff behind the scenes are what make any of this possible. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the privilege of working with a very innovative group of individuals who have real-world experiences they can bring to the table.” Technicians are invaluable for their knowledge and expertise in performing essential skills as well as their ability to provide procedural tips to troubleshoot challenges that veterinary students may face in clinical practice. Englar adds, “When I reflect upon my time in vet school and those first twelve months in a vet clinic as a new graduate, I survived because the technicians showed me how. So much of who I am today and so much of what I have learned about teaching along the way is a testament to their knowledge, their support, and their faith in me even when I was unsure about my own abilities.”  

The College of Veterinary Medicine’s teaching team has embraced ingenuity and exploration, resulting in practical and enriching hands-on experiences for students. The proficiency students gain from engaging with live and simulation animals prepares them to begin their third-year clinical rotations with confidence and expertise. 

Mindy Burnett