VHS Agriculture Program Unique in the County

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Dr. Noni Heikes, DVM, in an orange scarf, demonstrates with a stuffed dog as a stand-in when practicing veterinary procedures.

By Travis Smola

On any given day, one might find dogs, cats, even baby emus, at Vicksburg High School’s Agricultural Science building. But not a cow. Not yet.

“You never know what you’ll have in here,” said Dr. Noreen Heikes, a veterinary science teacher for Vicksburg’s Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) program. The unique learning environment serves about 120 students from all across Kalamazoo County. And it’s not the usual classroom. “We do a lot of hands-on stuff,” Heikes said who is a Vicksburg High School graduate and Michigan State University (MSU) Veterinary Medicine grad.

Students in the program study animal care, horticulture, water management, conservation and many related subjects. Many of the students also get involved in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) program and help serve their communities as well. The classes offer a unique, blended work environment where students spend three days a week in the classroom doing lab work and using equipment, and two other days doing online course work or job shadowing.

“It’ a good growing experience,” said Gull Lake senior James Porter. He hopes to attend MSU to become a veterinarian. He said the Ag science program helped him come out of his shell and got him doing things he wouldn’t have done otherwise. “It’s been a really positive aspect of my life,” Porter said.

He’s gotten much of that hands-on experience in Heikes’ veterinary classes. They provide not only the normal science lectures, but also hands-on work with dissections, introductions to using different types of veterinary equipment and even diagnostics. Heikes said most of the students taking the courses have an interest in working with animals in some capacity. Others may be interested in horticulture or resources management. Others still want to be officers with the Department of Natural Resources.

But it’s more than just preparing for careers. The program offers students valuable science skills as well. “It’s a look at resources from a sustainable perspective,” said Michelle Guthrie, Ag food science and natural resources educator. “It’s a look at how do we keep those resources going and growing for future generations to use.” Guthrie teaches classes that focus on horticulture. She said she hopes the students gain the knowledge from the course to where they can think analytically and understand current issues dealing with resources and the environment. “They’re going to be smart consumers of life,” she said.

The students get the opportunity to show off the skills they’ve learned at different competitions. Several of the students just returned from the Health Occupation Students of America competition. There are categories dealing with a variety of subjects. In a veterinary competition, students might have to complete quizzes and then show their knowledge in the care of animals by doing exams, patient histories and tests. Students in the program also participate in internships with local veterinarians learning hands-on skills. Heikes said some of them are eventually hired part-time while they finish college.

Portage Central High School junior Hayley Ferus is looking forward to doing her internship next year. The most interesting part of the program so far was a field trip to a dairy farm. She hopes to become a large-animal veterinarian. Ferus said there is never a boring day in the program. “I get to come here and learn fun things every day,” she said. “Doing work hands-on is very different from learning or reading about it.”

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