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Teaching prize to animal scientist: Ed DePeters aims to teach ‘why’ things work as they do, not just ‘how’

By Clifton B. Parker on March 13, 2009 in University

Think of Ed DePeters next time you reach for a carton of milk. The UC Davis animal science professor and expert in dairy cow nutrition can tell you exactly how the average cud-chewing cow turns grass and grain into a creamy glass of milk.

More importantly, he can tell you how the above-average animal science student turns lecture notes, lab experiments and field trips into a greater understanding of cows, animal nutrition, the dairy industry and even their own personal nutrition.

Today, DePeters, or “Dr. D” as students have dubbed him, was named the 2009 recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. The award was presented along with cake--and of course milk-- before a classroom filled with DePeters’ surprised and supportive students.

The $40,000 teaching prize, funded by the UC Davis Foundation and first awarded in 1987, is believed to be the largest undergraduate teaching prize in the nation. The winner is selected on the recommendations of faculty members, students and research peers. DePeters also will be honored at a May 7 formal dinner.

“Dr. DePeters’ focused and energetic devotion to teaching exemplifies the finest in UC Davis’ academic tradition,” said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. “He reminds us that we have a brief and precious moment at the university to engage young minds and ignite the talents and visions that will fire our nation and the global community.”

“Ed DePeters could serve as a model for the ideal faculty member — an extraordinary teacher, a caring and effective academic adviser, and a world-renowned researcher,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “All parents sending children off to college hope that their students will encounter an Ed DePeters at least once during their academic careers.”

Speaking on behalf of the UC Davis Foundation, Meg Stallard, a 1968 alumna and longtime supporter of UC Davis who helped announce the award today, noted that the prize reflects the value that the foundation places on excellence in undergraduate teaching.

“We present this prize annually in the belief that there is a wonderful alchemy that occurs when you combine excellence in undergraduate teaching with outstanding scholarly achievement,” Stallard said. “It reaffirms our conviction that the students and their professors are the heart of UC Davis’ mission. The UC Davis Foundation is proud to recognize Professor DePeters’ exceptional teaching and outstanding scholarship with the 2009 UC Davis Prize.”

DePeters’ research, which has been widely applied in the dairy industry, has focused on how the composition of milk, particularly the fatty-acid content, can be modified by changes in the cow’s diet, and how agricultural by-products such as almond hulls and cottonseed can be converted into nutritious feeds. His research has resulted in more than 120 scientific publications.

As impressive as his research achievements are, it is DePeters’ energy and personal concern that have wowed his students. Their reviews are peppered with comments like “very enthusiastic”….“really knows his material”…. “very approachable”….“incredible teacher”…. “funny and gifted”…. “the most motivated and dedicated teacher”….“a great guy and awesome prof”…. “I love this class; it’s top priority.”

“Dr. DePeters was an excellent instructor, always kind and welcoming to the students and absolutely pumped to teach our class,” wrote one student.

“Dr. D. demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject,” wrote another. “He was friendly and helpful in and out of class and a delight to have as a teacher. He learned every student’s name, which was amazing and something no other instructor I’ve had has taken the time to do. If I gave him a grade, he’d get an A+.”

DePeters teaches a lower-division course in livestock production and upper-division courses in dairy cattle production and animal feeds and nutrition. This year he’s also helping teach an animal science course on meat and dairy products.

If students had one piece of constructive criticism, they would remind him to SLOW DOWN during lectures. It’s something he’s been working on for years. As a young faculty member, he took advantage of the opportunity to have his lecture taped and reviewed with a campus teaching coach. He was horrified to watch himself wildly flipping through charts in front of the class.

“I get too excited for the students,” he said with a smile. “I get really nervous.”

To make sure that he delivers his material in an organized fashion, DePeters writes out every lecture and routinely walks through the campus arboretum practicing his delivery. He also provides complete notes on each lecture so that the students can pay attention without worrying about note taking.

And he’s learned that it’s the little things that make a class more fun. He requires students to wear “I Love Milk” buttons during their spring quarter dairy class, passes out specially made “I Want to Be a Nutritionist” pens as rewards, and has students throw darts at a dartboard to select the animal species they will study in their animal feeds and nutrition class. On Fridays during his spring quarter dairy production course, he vies with students to see who has the best cow-themed T-shirt.

DePeters never calls on students during class, remembering how painful the experience was when he was in school. But when he does address them, he wants to do so by name. To make that possible, he takes pictures of each student and carries the pictures around with him until he has memorized every student’s name.

In addition to lectures and labs, DePeters leads field trips to commercial dairies and even the Sacramento Zoo to help students see the science of animal nutrition at work in the real world.

“I tell the students that it is just as important to know why something works as it is to know how it works,” DePeters said. “Employers will hire our students for knowing the ‘why.’ ”

Raised on his family’s farm in Albion, N.Y., the young DePeters was often assigned to cultivate the vegetable crops with a tractor but he much preferred working with animals. He was particularly fond of lambing time during the holidays. He also raised rabbits as a young boy and worked on dairy farms during high school.

DePeters smiles as he reflects on the events that brought him to UC Davis. He earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Cornell University and then — since county agents needed advanced degrees — went on to Penn State for a master’s degree in dairy science. But instead of returning to Albion, he went on to earn his doctoral degree in dairy science, which, in turn, led him in 1979 to a faculty position at UC Davis.

After 30 years on faculty, DePeters is still as focused and intense as he was as a rookie professor.

Admitting that he is “driven,” he says his work days on campus start at 7 a.m. and don’t wind down until around 8 p.m., a routine that leaves little time for hobbies. For that reason, he and his wife, Susan, enjoy summers and holidays at their farmhouse on 60 acres in Prospect, Maine. There Ed enjoys cutting wood, striped bass fishing, clamming, feeding birds, sanding and painting the old house, gathering berries, and making jams and liqueurs.

He is grateful to the UC Davis Foundation members for their generous vote of confidence but rather embarrassed by all the fuss. And he is quick to acknowledge that he does not do his job alone, having received his family’s support through both the good times and the rough times.

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,