NORTHAMPTON, MA – Tucked away in a red barn at the back of the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School campus, there’s a different kind of learning going on. Students study with sheep, llamas, cattle and other furry exemplars.
In the classroom, students use Play-Doh and gummy bears to model skeletal systems and understand anatomy. Out the back door, in the multi-species barn, they see the living, breathing counterparts to their textbook images.
At Smith Voke, students operate on an alternating schedule: one week taking math, English and other traditional academic courses, one week in vocational programs ranging from cosmetology to criminal justice.
In the animal science program, which has around 50 students this year, they learn grooming, artificial insemination techniques and how to administer oral medicines, among other skills. Animal science teacher Beth Wilson leads the dairy and egg industry instruction, while her colleague Ashley Holden focuses on meat and fiber.
Experience among students varies. Some have never seen a goat in their lives, others come from farming backgrounds. Their teachers start them out with the basics, working up to more specific skills by senior year. Students learn by skill rather than species, Holden said, explaining that there’s overlap among the farm’s animals.“It’s really about the students getting to see the agricultural process from beginning to end,” Holden said.