Science first at SCI-FI VetMed camps

Dr. Romany Pinto (far left) demonstrates how the canine aquatic treadmill works to a group of VetMed campers. Photo: Robyn Thrasher.

I wanted to become a veterinarian by the time I was nine. At first, I just loved cuddling puppies and kittens — but as I grew older, I became more intrigued by the science behind veterinary medicine.

Those links between the science and the profession are exactly what kids participating in the University of Saskatchewan’s SCI-FI VetMed camps at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) learn about each summer.

Sharing knowledge about everything from anatomy to parasitology to neuroscience, this summer camp is offered to students who are in Grades 5 to 9. For seven weeks each summer, two SCI-FI Camp instructors work with a team of WCVM volunteers to offer the week-long camps at the veterinary college.

This summer, I had the chance to take part in some of the fun and educational activities that kids do during a VetMed camp. As a second-year veterinary student at the WCVM, I’m familiar with many of the activities — but in some cases, I’m learning right along with the campers.

Kids learn all about veterinary medicine at the University of Saskatchewan’s SCI-FI VetMed Camps

Day 1: Monday

I’m happy to join a group of campers who are in Grades 7 to 9 for a canine rehabilitation demonstration in the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre. It’s a specialized area of pet health care that I’ve heard about, but I’ve never had the chance to witness or experience it firsthand.

Dr. Romany Pinto, a clinical associate at the WCVM, teaches the campers about the importance of rehabilitation therapy for dogs following an injury or surgery. Excited to be handling and playing with dogs, the students are also delighted to learn about and practise the various exercises that veterinarians perform with some of their patients.

Dog begging for treat

VetMed campers try out one of the canine rehabiltation exercises with Dr. Romany Pinto’s guidance (at right). Photo: Robyn Thrasher.

The kids work together in groups to complete walking exercises with the dogs using obstacles such as ramps, hurdles and stairs. The dogs are also trained to do strengthening exercises that help to build muscle. They alternate between different position commands including lie down, sit, stand and beg.

The main event for the canine rehabilitation activity is the underwater treadmill. The kids and I watch a dog running on a treadmill while submerged in water – a sight that has us all in awe.

Day 2: Tuesday

The campers meet Jasmine, a Swainson’s hawk that came to the WCVM in 2003 with an injury. After she recovered, many attempts were made to release Jasmine back into the wild, but she kept returning to the College. Now she serves as the Wild and Exotic Animal Medicine Society’s (WEAMS) teaching bird at the WCVM. Jasmine and her veterinary student caretakers often go to local events, libraries and schools to educate children about wildlife.

Second-year veterinary student Rebecca Jackson is Jasmine’s primary caregiver for the summer as well as this year’s VetMed camp co-ordinator. She discusses her daily routine with Jasmine, teaches the children what to do if they come across injured wildlife and leads them on a tour through the WEAMS ward in the College’s Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC).

Day 3: Wednesday

The kids spend the morning in the anatomy lab dissecting bovine hearts and eyes. Since I learned how to dissect these organs during my first year in vet school, I’ve volunteered to help with the anatomy lab.

As we begin cutting into the different chambers of the heart, I teach them the names of the major blood vessels, the function of the valves and the path that blood follows through a pumping heart.

The eye dissection is a new addition to this year’s camp. The kids enjoy poking and prodding at it, but they really squeal with excitement when they see what looks like clear jelly squeeze out of an incision that I make through the eye. The transparent substance is vitreous humor that fills the interior of the eyeball behind the lens. While many of the kids say, “Eww! That’s disgusting!” I notice that the same ones go on to say, “That’s so cool . . . gross, but cool.”

During the afternoon, the kids also work on an arts and crafts activity making papier-mâché brain caps. While they have fun with glue and paint, they learn the different lobes of the brain and their function.

Day 4: Thursday

Campers put their drama skills to work as they learn about parasitology. Dr. Emily Jenkins, a veterinary microbiologist, and Brent Wagner, department assistant in veterinary microbiology, along with a number of graduate students teach the basics about parasites: what they are, where to find them and how they affect animal health.

After the lesson, the kids are assigned to one of three groups: American dog tick, fish tapeworm or heartworm. Each group is given a pre-written script for a play that demonstrates the life cycle of the group’s parasite.

Roles within the play include the various stages of the parasite as it moves through a complete lifecycle such as the egg stage, the larval stage and the adult stage. The kids also get to impersonate an assortment of hosts that these parasites infect.

According to Jackson, the plays are always cute and quite funny. By the end of the activity, the campers seem to have a really good understanding of parasitology.

Day 5: Friday

On the camp’s final day, WCVM veterinarian Dr. Elisabeth Snead goes through the steps of examining a cat from head to tail.

She also teaches the campers how to make a “kitty burrito” — a special restraint technique that’s used by small animal veterinarians. Snead wraps a towel around the cat’s body and legs so only its head can be seen. The kitty burrito method really comes in handy when a veterinarian needs to give a pill to an unhappy cat with sharp claws.

The remainder of the day is spent enjoying a barbecue lunch and a fun-filled afternoon of outdoor games. The highlight is a huge water fight among all of the campers.

After my week with the campers, I find myself wishing I had a camp like this to go to when I was a kid. And although no such camp existed during my childhood, I’m glad that I was able to participate in the VetMed camp as a veterinary student.

It gave me a chance to promote the profession and get kids – just like me when I was nine years old – thinking about a unique career that combines their interest in animals with science.


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