Award-winning U of I professor uses jazz hands to teach animal science
Anna Dilger standing in the front of a classroom, with students laughing in desks
National award winner Anna Dilger (right) brings humor and passion to teaching
November 11, 2021

URBANA, Ill. – When students walk into Anna Dilger’s classroom, they can expect play dough, cartoons, and dancing. But Dilger’s students aren’t kindergartners; they’re college students at the University of Illinois. And they’re learning from one of the best food and agriculture teachers in the country.

Dilger, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U of I, was recognized this week as one of two national winners in the USDA’s National Awards for Excellence in College and University Teaching in the Food and Agricultural Sciences program. The honor serves as validation for Dilger, whose zany methods are a bit outside the norm of the traditional college lecture.

“I will be honest. Sometimes I wonder if my way of teaching is the right way to do things,” Dilger says. “So, this award is validation and reinforcement that what I’m doing is effective. And it motivates me to talk to my colleagues and let them know it’s OK to be passionate and a little goofy, a little strange, because students really respond to it.”

Enrollment is now open for ACES and the Department of Animal Sciences. Apply by January 5 if you plan to start in fall 2022.

Dilger says her over-the-top enthusiasm helps students connect emotionally with course material.

“I am an absolute idiot in the classroom. I'm up there with the jazz hands and doing small dances. I don't think we should turn ourselves into Tik Tok or YouTube for the sake of entertaining students. But I think we are drawn to things we connect with emotionally or are excited by,” she says.

“It took me a while to get over acting like a goofball in a course, but it’s to the point now that I'm not sure I could teach any other way.”

Current and former students say lessons delivered with enthusiasm and unique teaching aids are hard to forget.

“We were learning about adipose tissue and how fat is broken down. A student mentioned a public figure who promotes raspberry ketones as an easy way to break down fat/lose weight. The mechanism of breaking down fat is much more involved, and raspberry ketones are not the way to do it. Jokingly, Dr. Dilger started karate chopping the air, as if she were the raspberry ketones magically breaking down fat,” says Jessica Lowell, meat scientist at Nestle Purina PTC.

“Obviously, this was not part of the actual concept/lesson, but I will never forget raspberry ketones; to this day I karate chop the air whenever I hear them mentioned.”

Dilger uses play dough “steaks” contaminated with surface bacteria (also play dough) to demonstrate the importance of cooking temperature. After showing how cooking gets rid of the surface bacteria on steaks, Dilger tells students to smash a contaminated steak into hamburger, relocating some of the bacteria deep inside the meat. 

Diana Clark, meat scientist for Certified Angus Beef, remembers the lesson well. “Using play dough to demonstrate the importance of cooking ground beef to 160 degrees was a simple explanation that sticks with you.”

Both in and out of the classroom, Dilger embodies the “ACES family” spirit. She makes a point to get to know students as individuals and supports their development as professionals and people.

“I was first introduced to Dr. Dilger as a high school student visiting the University of Illinois to learn about the Animal Sciences program,” says Erin Bryan, graduate student in Dilger’s research group. “She took time to learn about my goals for my undergraduate experience and discussed with me potential avenues for reaching them. She also talked to me about how to succeed as a college student in a competitive university setting. This is one small example of her dedication as a professor to all students, and her individual-focused mentoring style.”

Dilger’s one-on-one mentoring has influenced numerous careers, including Lowell’s.

“I came to the U of I as a grad student in swine nutrition, elected to take a meat science class, met Dr. Dilger, and fell in love with meat science. In reality, I was struggling both personally and academically, when it came to confidence in myself and my intellectual ability. Dr. Dilger saw the potential I didn’t and challenged me to become the scientist I am today,” Lowell says

“Her passion for learning and critical thinking, the way she carries herself, and how she interacts with others are key qualities necessary for a successful, meaningful career. So yes, a degree in meat science brought me to Purina, but my career has been most influenced by Dr. Dilger as my mentor.”

Dilger has always invested in students as individuals, but a yearlong stint as interim associate dean for academic programs in ACES drove home just how many variables influence a student’s success.

“What I took away from that experience was a more nuanced, richer understanding of our students, their personal and family challenges. It gave me a richer picture of issues with access, and how to support students to be successful. Are we meeting students where they are and helping them get to where they want to be? Doing that means really understanding what students are bringing to the table,” she says.

Dilger is also an instructor in the ACES Teaching and Learning Academy, where she influences and inspires peers across the ACES faculty.

“When I show up to ACES Teaching and Learning Academy or other teaching events, this is what you get. I’m the same engaged, slightly annoyingly over-the-top-enthusiastic person,” she says. “I'm hoping other instructors see that this teaching style is effective and doesn't undercut your authority as a scientist. I hope I've had a little bit of influence in helping break down some of those formal barriers that can get in the way of us connecting with our students.”

Anna Ball, associate dean for academic programs in ACES, says, “In addition to her engaging and lively teaching style, Dr. Dilger is a scholar and leader among effective teaching and curricular practices in the college. Whether co-instructing the teaching academy for new faculty, leading the college curriculum committee, or serving on college-wide committees to lead policy and professional development for teaching, Anna Dilger is a model for scholarly excellence in teaching.”

Dilger regularly teaches animal growth and development, contemporary issues in animals, and meat production and marketing. She also teaches graduate-level courses in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at ACES.