New Virginia Tech animal learning center includes outdoor arena for hands-on education

Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:29 AM EST
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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ) - One of Virginia Tech’s newest buildings will enhance the education and hands-on experience of animal science students for generations to come. It’s called the Dr. Bill Etgen Large Animal Learning Center, named after a dairy scientist who worked to educate students on the value of animal husbandry and experiential learning.

It’s located next to Gobbler’s Rest on Plantation Road in Blacksburg. The new $2.8 million bovine extension, teaching and research facility is now welcoming students through its doors.

“We’re just super excited to have this facility,” Professor Katharine Knowlton said.

The building’s namesake, Dr. Bill Etgen, championed students for nearly 25 years at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Bill Etgen and students at Virginia Tech.
Dr. Bill Etgen and students at Virginia Tech.(Virginia Tech)

“He had incredible high expectations for his students,” Knowlton said. “He was very demanding, but the students loved him because they knew they were always on his side.”

And it’s that kind of mentorship and passion that current professors like Katharine Knowlton, Cindy Wood and Dan Eversole instill in their students even to this day.

“I think what Virginia Tech really has is the combination of the basic sciences, which is the foundation, coupled with the hands-on learning,” Wood said.

Like most educational buildings at Virginia Tech, the new animal learning center has a classroom for in-person study and lab work.

“The capacity on this is about 120 people if we take out all the tables and just have chairs. But we can divide the classroom into two separate rooms so we could have two labs going on at the same time.”

But with this new facility, the distance barrier is all but eliminated because of its proximity to campus and the animals themselves.

“We can bring the students out here, teach them something here in the classroom and then take them out to the arena, bring some animals out and actually have them work with the cows,” Knowlton said.

“They’ll take the practical knowledge they learn, the scientific knowledge they learn in the classroom, and they’re able to put it to use out here with the live animal model,” Eversole added.

What makes this new building unique is the Etgen Pavilion in the back.

“For those of us that have large animals, it will be an exhibit area,” Eversole explained.

Much of the animal science education is hands-on, and with this new arena, rain or shine, cows, horses and other animals can be brought here for study.

“To have this facility close to campus that they can use for their extra curricular activities, their dairy show, their livestock show, 4H and youth activities, I think that’s going to allow us to attract the very best students,” Knowlton said.

“It’s very flexible and that has really been the key for us to be able to do this,” Wood added.

And even though a lot has changed in the 30+ years that Wood has been here, the animal science department is still growing. Some plans in the works include a new swine building, poultry and equine center renovations, more beef and sheep facilities and additions to the dairy complex.

“We’re really continuously looking to keep on going but at the same we want to keep open space,” Wood said. “We’re just really happy to see the university get behind us in getting us to the 21st century. It’s wonderful.”

Which would probably make Dr. Etgen proud of where the future of animal science and agriculture is heading and who will soon be leading the charge.

“They’re certainly the future leaders in many of these organizations and industries,” Eversole said.

COVID-19 of course has limited the types of events to be held in the pavilion. However, Virginia Tech hopes once the pandemic has passed, it’ll be used for farm competitions, 4H and FAA meetings, among other things.

Lynchburg-based firm, Charles Perry Partners, Inc. was the construction manager behind this 18-month educational project. They were responsible for the contracting of various local trades who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into the project.

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