July 28, 2023
Words and photos by Jens Odegaard 

Last week, dozens of veterinary educators from across the western United States flocked to Corvallis to attend the 2023 Summer Conference hosted by the Teaching Academy of the Consortium of West Region Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, known in shorthand as the RTA for regional teaching academy.

The consortium consists of more than 75 members from seven member institutions as well as other veterinary and biomedical educational institutions in the West. The seven member institutions are: the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the Western University College of Veterinary Medicine (California), the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, the Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine (Arizona) and the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. 

Held every two years, the conference celebrated its tenth anniversary where it was first held, at the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. Lois Bates Acheson Dean of the College Susan J. Tornquist has been part of the consortium since its inception. 

“The very first biennial summer meeting was held here in July, 2013, and I’ve been remembering the planning and the meeting itself. At the time of planning for that first 2013 conference, I was the associate dean for student and academic affairs and a member of the original steering committee for the RTA,” Tornquist said. “I had lots more responsibility for that conference than I do now, and I remember the feeling of relief when it was over and everyone had made good connections and learned a lot.”

In the ensuing years, the conference has been hosted by the other four founding member institutions: WSU, CSU, UC Davis and Western University. “The consortium has added two new members, Midwestern College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. We’re happy to add new members and expand our network,” Tornquist said. 

More than 50 conference attendees from across the Western United States gather for a group photo on the lawn outside of Magruder Hall, which houses the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. 

The mission of the RTA “is to ensure that the members of the consortium collaborate to develop, implement, and sustain the best practices in veterinary medical and biomedical education in our colleges, and to establish veterinary medical educator/biomedical educator as a valued career track. Through these efforts we hope to meet the needs of society and the profession.” 

The biennial conference is a chance for members and guests to get together and share their successes and challenges while learning from each other about how to continue improving veterinary and biomedical education. A predominant theme is helping each other improve in team-based learning and active learning approaches that break the traditional lecture-based, talking-head paradigm and get students and educators actively involved together through activities, real-world scenarios and other experimental approaches. 

Conference attendees discuss ways to bolster classroom culture during the opening keynote activity.

Dr. Ben Wiggins, keynote speaker, leads a group activity during the conference. 

Conference co-chairs Dr. Tandi Ngwenyama (left) and Dr. Maria Fahie (right), participate in a group activity with Dr. Ohad Levi during a conference keynote.

“It feeds my soul,” said conference attendee Dr. Holly Bender from the University of Arizona. “I've seen a lot of really amazing educators in my career that have been washed out of a system that didn't support them. And this organization, everything we do is to support education, but not just the students. I mean, that's a really important part of it, but it uses educational research-supported types of education to support students, but then we also support the faculty and we want them to succeed and the academic staff and we want them to succeed too, and we all get together to make that happen.”

Dr. Heloisa Rutigliano teaches veterinary clinical and life sciences at the Utah State University College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences. Rutigliano first became involved with the RTA in 2017 and credits the consortium with shifting her entire educational approach. “It changed the way I teach, it changed the way I engage with students. I didn't do all team-based learning, like active learning. I was a very traditional lecturer and it changed the way I approach teaching. And I think everyone is so friendly, so open to collaborating and helping you. And so I love this organization.”

Dr. Sallianne Schlacks teaches at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine which opened in 2020. Schlacks had been in private and clinical practice in internal medicine prior to getting hired at the college as it was starting. Schlacks was passionate about the idea of teaching, but had no formal teaching experience. “Coming in with basically no preconceived notions of what you should be doing, I had the support and the luxury of being in a university that really the main mission is teaching with evidence-based methods,” Schlacks said. “Coming [to the conference] gave me an opportunity to meet other people who are trying to do the same thing and get ideas. This my first consortium meeting and I’m falling in love with everyone's friendliness and collaboration and it's kind of like a new way of approaching learning that I had never really thought of when I was a vet student even when I got hired, um, that there were traditional and non-traditional ways of doing it. And so it's nice to be in a group committed to that, and it seems like a very noble pursuit.”

Tornquist joined the veterinary faculty at Oregon State in 1996 and has held nearly every educational and administrative role at the college. Even while serving as dean, she still teaches clinical pathology to veterinary students and is an active diagnostician in the college’s Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.  “The motto of the RTA is ‘Making Teaching Matter,’ and I think everyone here would agree that it’s a great motto for this group,” she said in opening the conference. “I spend a lot of time these days thinking about the future of veterinary medicine and how different it will be in 15- or 20 years. I don’t know exactly how things will go (although, as a pathologist, I keep hearing that we will be defunct, along with radiologists, as artificial intelligence takes over our job of pattern recognition in diagnostic samples), but I think it is our responsibility as veterinary educators to understand and acknowledge that we are training veterinarians that will be responsible for animal health in that future world. The skills needed may be quite different, though some will be the same into the foreseeable future. Again, we can’t predict the future, but if we put our heads together and share ideas, we should be able to come up with strategies that will help our students be successful in that future world."