Learning outside of the classroom

Why the best education comes from first-hand experience

I held a large, white, plastic needle filled with antibiotics in my hands.

“Gently pinch the tip of the teat to help spread the opening,” Chris Hemlock told me.

I did just that, and then slowly, carefully inserted the needle into the cow’s infected nipple. It slid surprisingly smoothly up the channel, and I began to inject the fluid into the udder. The cow fidgeted but remained impressively calm. Finished, I removed the needle and stepped back.

“Well I have never done that before,” I said.

I believe that experiential learning is an essential part of education. The first half of this semester, I spent my Mondays working at 86 Acres, a grass-based, raw milk dairy farm in Saegertown that sells directly to consumers.

The cow I injected had mastitis, an inflammatory infection of the teats and udder. The infection causes the cow to have a painful, swollen udder, and the milk becomes discolored, chunky and unsafe to drink. If the infection spreads, it can become systemic and cause serious problems for the cow.

Owen Ludwig
The sun rises behind 86 Acres Farms on March 12, 2018.

Eighty-six Acres is not certified organic, partly because the certification is costly in both time and money but also because we would not have been allowed to treat the sick cow with the antibiotics it needed.

As an environmental science student, I learned that giving antibiotics to animals is often considered bad and that higher levels of antibiotics in our food cause bacteria to become resistant to medications.

The risk of antibiotic resistance mostly applies to large-scale animal production operations where the animals are consistently and preventatively given antibiotics in their feed.

It is not, however, harmful to treat a sick cow — in the same way that you or I would take antibiotics if we had an infection — while withholding the milk it produces until it is healthy and the antibiotics are out of its system.

This is not meant to be an argument for or against organic certifications or antibiotics. Certification and farming practices are complicated, but this does demonstrate how one best learns about environmental science: not only in a classroom, but with hands on experience as well.

Thanks to my time in the classroom, I have become a far better writer, speaker and thinker. I have gained a firm understanding of the scientific process and a solid foundation of knowledge about a wide variety of environmental issues.

Additionally, I have been able to gain hands-on skills and knowledge through real-world experiences because of  off-campus internships and independent studies, like working at 86 Acres. Both learning environments have been essential to my education.

My Monday tasks at the farm began with milking, which included setting up the equipment, bringing in the cows, washing their teats, checking for signs of infection, using a vacuum pump to milk each cow, cleaning the equipment and washing down the milking parlor.

At first it was overwhelming trying to remember every little step of the process and all of the things to look out for, but with time and practice, I fine-tuned my skills and settled into a routine. For Hemlock, the owner, milking time is almost meditative.

After milking, I helped tackle whatever tasks needed the most attention. Sometimes I worked with the animals — collecting eggs, bottle-feeding a calf or filling the sheep’s water buckets, among other things.

I helped set up the electric fencing used for the rotational grazing that will take place in warmer months. I frost seeded clover into the pastures, which the cows will love to eat, and the clover will help fix nitrogen into the soil.

I learned a lot about farming practices — including animal care, dairy production, rotational grazing practices and pasture management  — and I learned a lot of specific skills, like how to drive a skid loader, pour concrete and frost seed.

Perhaps most importantly, I had  a glimpse of a farming lifestyle. If I become a farmer someday, then I will have a good sense of what the job will entail and if I will enjoy it. If I do not become a farmer, then I have a better understanding of the work that goes into producing the food I consume.

Both understandings are invaluable, and the things I have learned to reach those understandings would be hard to learn in a classroom.

Owen Ludwig
Chris Hemlock, owner of 86 Acres Farm in Saegertown, Pennsylvania, feeds calves on March 12, 2018, in pens Owen Ludwig, ‘18, helped construct as part of an internship.

It is challenging to really understand the farming lifestyle without experiencing the farming lifestyle. It is difficult to learn how to operate a skid loader without getting to drive a skid loader. It is hard to learn how to milk a cow, or give one  a mammary injection without actually getting to see and do those things.

However, neither classroom learning nor experiential learning is better than the other. They work in tandem and build off of each other.

In an environmental science class  I took my freshman year, “Soil to Plate,” I completed a project on mastitis — learning about its causes, implications and treatments. At the time, I wondered about the project’s relevance, but a few years later, as I held that white, plastic needle, I found myself applying the classroom knowledge.

As I injected the antibiotics and talked it over with Hemlock, I got to see another side of the issues related to medicating animals, which helped me expand my perspective by comparing his practices with my existing understandings.

In other classes, I have learned about the importance of legumes for improving soil health, and recently I implemented that knowledge by frost seeding clover into the pastures of 86 Acres. Professors have told me that rotational grazing benefits the soil, and now I have seen how such a system can be applied.

This experiential learning is not separate from my classroom learning — it is part of my liberal arts education. Unfortunately, not all institutions or academic departments have options for hands-on learning, and, even if they do, not all students appreciate the opportunities.

This gap in education may come from liberal arts institutions being viewed as entirely antagonistic to technical schools. But they do not have to be — and maybe they should not be — separate.