How to help

The Charleston Animal Society wants to expand its Veterinary Science Initiative to more students locally and nationwide, and it needs financial support to do so.

To donate or learn more, go to www.vsiprogram.com.

Follow the program on Twitter at @VSIprogram or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vsiprogram.

Veterinarian Brittany Tisa held the euthanized dog’s lungs in her hands and invited students to feel them.

“It’s like organic bubble wrap,” one student said.

Tisa laughed and agreed, and she encouraged the group to use all their senses to make observations. Any student who wanted to feel the organs could.

“It was kind of crazy to see an open dog and touch it,” said Sa’id Kelly, a sophomore at Goose Creek High School, afterward. “We never do field trips like this ... This was great. Awesome, actually.”

The demonstration necropsy at the Charleston Animal Society was one element of a comprehensive program that is attracting attention nationally. The society’s education team developed the Veterinary Science Initiative, which is offered throughout Lowcountry classrooms in an effort to expose students to veterinary science and the shelter’s work.

“There aren’t a lot of resources in shelters, so if you’re going to invest time and money, you better make sure it’s effective and it hits multiple goals,” Tisa said. “The primary focus is getting kids interested in science.”

How it started

Tisa, the society’s director of continuing education initiatives, conceived the idea for the VSI program, and she worked with De Daltorio, the society’s director of humane education, to create the curriculum.

A $59,000 grant from the American Honda Foundation provided the time and resources they needed. They hired a part-time teacher who aligned their lessons with what the state requires students to learn, and they piloted the program in spring 2012 at two high schools, Stall and School of the Arts.

That fall they expanded to five schools. Tisa, who was working on her doctoral dissertation, studied the program’s effect on those students, as well as students who participated in the spring of 2013.

She found that the program resulted in significant changes in students’ behavior, attitudes and knowledge. After participating, more students were having their pets spayed and neutered, were signing up as volunteers and were changing their attitudes about animal welfare and veterinary care, according to her research.

Their efforts attracted national interest, and they were invited last year to make a presentation at the Association of Professional Humane Educators national conference in California. Conference attendees’ enthusiastic response to the program prompted them to organize a national training conference in Charleston in September.

“It was always the intention to help enable other facilities to do this type of program,” Tisa said.

Eleven organizations from seven states attended the Charleston conference, and students in California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin soon will be using the program.

The curriculum

The Veterinary Science Initiative has seven lessons that are taught through students’ high school classes. Topics range from pathology and cruelty investigation to ethical science.

Educators from the Charleston Animal Society go to the schools for the first lesson, and they take an animal and perform a live ultrasound. The society gives high school teachers all the materials they need to teach the next five lessons, and the program culminates with a visit to the animal shelter.

“We make it easy for them to do it,” Tisa said.

The lessons are multi-disciplinary, so they don’t just involve science. The program could be offered in any subject area, but only science teachers have taken advantage of it thus far.

This year marks the second time chemistry teacher Amy Paul has taught the program. She’s an animal-lover — Paul has adopted five animals — and she wanted to expose students to the shelter and its work. Although the VSI lessons aren’t necessarily tied to chemistry, Paul said they’re science-focused, and it’s worth doing because students get so much out of them.

“They learn ... skills they need to have as an adult and to be career ready,” she said. “When they see it’s VSI day, they get excited.”

Tisa worried initially about whether teachers would make the time for the lessons, which each last 1½ hours, but she said that hasn’t been an issue. They are working with six teachers in four high schools — West Ashley, Goose Creek, Cane Bay and North Charleston — and they expect to reach 650 students this year.

They’ve had to turn away other schools that were interested in the program, she said.

“We’re completely filled and can’t take anymore,” Tisa said.

Day at the shelter

The VSI field trip to the shelter is anything but typical. Students do more than observe; they stand beside veterinarians as they neuter dogs, put their hands inside a euthanized animal and brush the coats of animals in recovery.

On Thursday, nearly 50 Goose Creek High students spent four hours at the shelter rotating through different stations.

During the demonstration canine autopsy, a small group huddled around the dog while others hung back and watched. One student had to leave the room because of the gaseous smell coming from the dog.

The dog was euthanized after it killed three other family pets and responded to shelter trainers with aggression. The Charleston Animal Society doesn’t euthanize for space; it does for temperament and serious sickness.

Tisa described how the liver, bladder and spleen should look and feel, and she described the function of the diaphragm. Students put their fingers through a heart valve and squeezed the dog’s stomach.

“Can you feel the kibble inside there?” she asked them. “Isn’t it crazy?”

In another room where animals were being prepped for surgery, one student had to lie down on the floor from nausea. For others, the experience had the opposite effect.

Sophomore Sarah Burke wants to pursue a career in health care, and she has considered nursing because she worried that she would be queasy doing a surgery. She appreciated the way Tisa professionally exposed the group to the euthanized dog and its organs, and she said it made her fears disappear.

“Students in other schools should have the opportunity to take this course,” she said. “It’s a great way to learn through the community.”

Sophomore Patrick Burnett said the program taught him how to understand differing perspectives. Although it didn’t change any of his self-described “stubborn” opinions, he said it might have had a bigger effect on his classmates.

And to say that he enjoyed going to the animal shelter would be an understatement.

“On most field trips, you don’t get to do this much,” he said. “This is pretty spectacular.”

Going forward

Tisa said she would like to be able to expand the Veterinary Science Initiative to more students and schools, and the only barrier is a lack of funding.

They have enough money to continue the program for this school year, but they need more to ensure its long-term longevity.

“It’s financing and hiring additional people,” she said. “If we had another full-time education person, we might be able to swing more classes. But with the staff we have, we’re maxed out.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.