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Students at Escalante Middle School learn veterinary science through raising kittens

Students nurture felines by learning how to administer vaccines
Escalante Middle School student Maggie Taylor, 13, shows how they give vaccinations to one of four kittens wrapped up as a kitten burrito on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in the agriculture science class at the school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For many students across the country, science classes typically consist of learning the basics of the periodic table and understanding the rudiments of the Punnett square.

But for the students in Lu Boren’s agriculture science class at Escalante Middle School, students learn the basics of veterinary science through raising kittens. This is part of the school’s project-based learning approach, which Boren says makes a world of difference in student retention.

During a class on Nov. 8, students gathered around Boren as she showed them how to administer vaccines to the kittens. The students wrapped the kittens up in a towel to prevent the felines from clawing at them while they practice administering the vaccine, a technique that was called a “kitty burrito” by Boren and the students.

Escalante Middle School student Regan Wilkinson, 13, weighs one of four kittens Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, that the students in the agriculture science class are taking care of at the school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The students had compassion for the tiny pets, handling them with great care. However, it isn’t all fun and games for the class, as Boren treats her students as if they are professionals, each having particular jobs in caring for the kittens.

This was also a way for Boren to teach the students about the different diseases newborn cats can get and why the vaccines are important.

“They will walk away from here knowing how to tell if they’re sick, which I think is a huge skill for people, and just knowing about spaying neutering, or vaccination in general,” Boren said.

According to a study by the National Training Laboratories, students retain 75% of what they learn when they practice it. They also retain 90% of what they learn when they teach someone else or use those lessons immediately.

The class originated from a community service project for Boren’s science classes, where the students would nurture kittens from the La Plata County Humane Society.

The first thing she tries to teach students is how to tell if an animal is sick.

“It's even more important with these kittens, because they're so little, and they're so vulnerable, they can go south really quickly,” Boren said.

One of the main ways the students and Boren test to see whether a kitten is sick is by weighing them. She said the kittens will stay in the classroom until they are two pounds.

Escalante Middle School students Maggie Taylor, 13, and June Scheid, 13, give one of four kittens a bath on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, that the students in the agriculture science class are taking care of at the school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It is one of the easiest ways for us to tell if they're not doing well,” Boren said.

When Boren first started the class, the kitten’s mother would travel with the kittens to the EMS classroom. But after that year, Boren decided against this because the mother cats did not like being transported between the school and the Humane Society.

“I think they are even more vulnerable because they don't have that mama to watch out after them. They’re eating regular food and not consuming milk, and so they're not getting those antibodies and stuff from the mama cat. It's very important that we're watching to make sure that they're gaining weight and eating well,” she said.

The students practiced administering the vaccine to the cats and then were placed back in their kitty condominium, which was stored in the EMS library when class was not in session.

Students mopped the floor to begin the class period in order to ensure the class was as sanitary as possible, which was another way of protecting the kittens’ immune systems during a fragile state of their lives.

Escalante Middle School student Dillon Scolli, 13, holds one of the four kittens on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, that the students in the agriculture science class are taking care of. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“This kitten project is the kid's project, not mine. They are responsible for the kittens’ well-being, and I am just here to support them. It is a big responsibility to get those kittens back to the Humane Society in good health, so they can be adopted. The kids are taking that responsibility very seriously,” Boren said.

For seventh-grader Emm Roethenmund, it’s her favorite class.

“It’s really interactive and you learn real-life skills,” Roethenmund said, adding it’s the type of experience a person would have as a farmhand and other careers outside of just being a veterinarian.

Escalante Middle School teacher Lu Boren explains to Emm Roethenmund, 12, left, June Scheid, 13, center, and Ferah Fowler, 13, on how to fill a syringe that the students use to vaccinate the kittens in her agriculture science class on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Interest in the agricultural science class has grown, Boren said.

The class is made up of around 20 students who all seemed happy just be in the presence of the kittens.

In the spring, the students will nurture lambs from J. Paul Brown’s ranch. The students will care for orphan lambs and again oversee their health through the early stages of their lives.

“We keep them for about three weeks, and we keep them at the school the whole time,” Boren said.


Escalante Middle School student Anna Taulli, 14, cleans one of the cat crates on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, that the students in the agriculture science class use to move the four kittens that they are taking care of. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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