There’s a Heifer in Your Tank, University of Alberta

2011 Finalist: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness

Program Engages The Community In Agriculture Through ‘Edutainment’

‘Edutainment’ is how Dr. Frank Robinson describes “There’s a Heifer in your Tank”, a combination of education and entertainment that brings agriculture into the lives of diverse people all over Alberta.

Under the enthusiastic leadership of Dr. Robinson, Vice Provost and Dean of Students at the University of Alberta, what began as one component of an undergraduate animal science course in 2004, has expanded beyond the walls of the university reaching new audiences and addressing new themes. It has engaged thousands of school children and the general public in active learning about the science behind food production and processing while developing the communications skills of hundreds of undergraduate students. It has also developed a comprehensive social media component that reaches countless more people internationally.

“The most effective learning happens when you’re not aware you’re learning,” Dr. Robinson observes. “That’s the moment we’re looking for with “There’s a Heifer in Your Tank”. We’ve thrown away or laughed at the stereotypes. We’ve basically made the “Saturday Night Live’ of Science.” He adds that science tends to take itself overly seriously and uses too many acronyms, which alienates people and becomes a barrier to learning.

“We make it okay for people to let their guard down and ask questions. And that’s how they learn.” Dr. Robinson continues. “We’ve made a safe place to dialogue on science.”  Dr. Robinson runs “There’s a Heifer in Your Tank” with program coordinator Dana Penrice and U of A Associate Professor in Poultry Science Martin Zuidhof.

The name “There’s a Heifer in Your Tank”  comes from the first question posed to students in the program: If your car burned methane, how far could you travel on the methane from one cow? Examples of other questions include: Why can’t turkeys mate naturally? Are they just shy?; If people get chicken pox, do chickens get human pox?; and Is Cheez-Whiz really one molecule away from plastic?

The questions are always focused and offbeat. Audiences are engaged through fun skits or video enactments. Sometimes students use poems to explain a concept. It is always entertaining, and humour is a prevailing factor. The result is that community members who participate in the program acquire a stronger connection to production and processing of their food and gain a deeper appreciation of animal science, particularly important in a society where youth may not have a connection to agriculture.

An important component to the program is developing leadership potential in youth. The program has attracted over 1,000 students from all disciplines at the U of A since it began. They take the hugely popular program to public schools, conventions and seniors homes, among other venues, educating a broad spectrum of the public about science and agriculture.

Dr. Robinson says with communications technology like the website, blogs and YouTube, the program is able to bring disparate people together. Seniors, farmers and youth blog with each other. They may never have communicated with each other if not for “There’s a Heifer in Your Tank”.

“We’ve actually made a difference by giving knowledge to the food-consuming public. We’re myth busting,” Dr. Robinson says. “That’s our most important contribution to science.”