March 2022 | Resource Feature
The Online Summer Food Lab
By Victoria Perrone & Rosemary White
In the summer of 2021, our independent high school designed two-week mini-courses for our incoming ninth-grade students. The courses were optional, free electives and covered a variety of specialized topics beyond our usual course offerings. The purpose of these mini-courses was for students to engage with academic material, enjoy exploring topics of interest, and get to know one another and their teachers before the start of the school year. Each of the courses were held on Zoom and was co-taught by two teachers from our school for two hours per day for two weeks.
For our part, we created a Chemistry of Cooking course. Many parts of this mini-course were experimental for us: it was our first time team teaching, our first time teaching on this topic, and our first time designing a new course without a textbook. Though neither of us has much experience with the topic of food science, we were both excited by the topic, and especially about getting to teach students while they learned and experimented in their own kitchens.
|Figure 1. Instructor Victoria Perrone completes test experiments while planning for the summer cooking course. From left to right: making sorbet with differing amounts of sugar and juice; exploring the gumminess of different flours; and Victoria’s first-ever loaf of homemade bread!|
Our two-week plan
Sample Course Documents
We decided it would be best to kick off the first class by discussing scientific myths, such as taste and the different parts of the tongue, as well as the importance of using credible sources. In addition, we planned to introduce and discuss different ways to start a chemical reaction in the kitchen (such as mechanical force, heat, and combining ingredients).
We designed the next three days of the mini-course to help students learn about the chemistry of common baking ingredients, such as butter, flour, sugar, and oil. Then, on the first Friday of the mini-course, we had the students design and create their own cake based on what they learned throughout the first week.
In the second week, we introduced cooking topics related to pH (like pickling) and mixtures (like making mayonnaise and salad dressing), and also had students research various “controversial” ingredients and additives (e.g., MSG, natural flavors, salt, and fat). We also planned for the students to explore cooking careers that involve chemistry, and analyze a personally significant recipe of their choice. The project, Analyze a Family Recipe can be found in the AACT library, and it is also outlined below under Daily Lessons.
Our goal was to design each session to include either one hands-on component for students to perform in the kitchen, or a mini-project where they would research in breakout groups, and then share what they learned with the whole class. Once we finalized the general plan, we created a shopping list for what the students would need to purchase in order to participate in the hands-on components of the course. We decided to send along a package of some of the harder-to-find ingredients, like red cabbage pH indicator, yeast, and small amounts of specialty flours. In order for students to participate in some additional experiments, we asked them to obtain other suggested ingredients on their own. A complete list of the suggested ingredients, as well as the ingredients we sent home ahead of time, can be found in the course syllabus.
Below, we have outlined a brief description of select lessons from the course. Each day, we started with an ‘appetizer question’ to get the students talking and learning a little about each other. Following the question, we would review the mise en place (a French culinary term meaning “having all ingredients gathered”) which outlined what materials the students would need for class (specifics can be found in the syllabus.) Following most classes, we asked students to prepare for the next day. For example, before the lesson on flour, we asked students to mix and proof dough overnight.
Week 1, Class 2: Sweet, Sweet Sugar
|(10 mins)||Appetizer Question: “If I was a food, I would be … because …”|
|(5 mins)||Mise en place: popcorn kernels, brown sugar, white sugar, butter, and sheet pan.|
|(25 mins)||Lesson One: Students enrolled in this class had minimal (or no) formal knowledge of chemistry. Therefore, we taught skeletal structures of organic molecules when introducing sugar, and had students practice drawing various sugar molecules and determining the molecular formulas. This was a great opportunity to introduce chemistry vocabulary such as bonds, atoms, and molecules to the students.|
|(25 mins)||Lesson Two: With a combination of hands-on examples and teacher-led demonstrations, the class explored the different properties sugar can bring to desserts besides sweetness. For example, the night before, students had prepared and frozen three mixtures of different amounts of sugar with fruit juice. When they dug into the different sorbets with a spoon, they experienced how sugar depresses the freezing point of a liquid, making it scoopable! We demonstrated the hygroscopic property of sugar over Zoom by mixing strawberries with sugar to make a light syrup around the fruit.|
|(30 mins)||Lesson Three: Lecture-style, we shared about the different stages sugar goes through on its way to caramelization. Then, students made caramel popcorn, led cooking-class style by the teacher.|
Week 2, Class 5: Cooking x Science
|(10 mins)||Appetizer Question: “What do you hope to study after you finish high school?”|
|(10 mins)||We described different careers in cooking for students interested in food science. Examples included flavor scientist, food policy analyst, nutritionist, and molecular gastronomy chef.|
|(30 mins)||For this final class, we welcomed the Senior Environmental Public Health Officer at a local college to the Zoom room to talk about how she uses chemistry every day at her job. She talked about her path to food science and safety and shared specific chemistry examples, like measuring the pH levels of salsa.|
|(1 hour)||Students presented their week two project: Analyze a Family Recipe. They each chose a recipe (either their favorite food or a family tradition) to analyze and present. Included in each presentation was the ingredient list, the recipe, and one or two explanations of how the chemistry of the ingredients makes the dish taste so good! The project allowed students to incorporate personal connections and culture into the course. Recipes chosen included pho, butternut squash soup, chana masala, and dumplings. View the complete recipe book to find all the details.|
Many parts of the mini-course worked well. We chose the topic of Chemistry of Cooking for several reasons. It was of interest to us (and, we hoped, to our students); it was not something we were typically able to incorporate into our tenth-grade chemistry course; and it was a topic where being at home had distinct advantages. With the remote platform, students had their own kitchens and many of their own reagents/ingredients; we did not have to provide glassware or instruments. The remote class was convenient for the students and teachers: no travel time, and you could join from wherever you were. (One student even joined the second week of the class from a vacation overseas!) The Zoom platform worked well for breakout rooms and small group work, though this aspect could have certainly been effective in a classroom as well.
Of course, the mini-course also came with its own challenges. Many students had learned online or in a hybrid format the previous school year, and so were experiencing Zoom fatigue. Some would turn off their cameras at times throughout the class, and it was sometimes hard to ascertain if they were having Internet issues, had others in the room they needed to be sensitive to, or were doing other activities.
We were thoughtful about which ingredients we needed to provide to students, as well as what they would easily have on hand in their kitchens. When we sent the supply list, we also told students and families to let us know if they needed assistance purchasing the materials. We found that most students had the standard ingredients needed for each day. Some students had much more than they needed (e.g., piping tips, food coloring, exotic flavor extracts) and were excited to incorporate what they had; others were happy to make substitutions as needed and chalk it up to experimentation (e.g., replacing milk with water, or brown sugar with white sugar). But overall, it did not seem like obtaining most of the supplies was an issue.
While we did not provide specific information on safety in the course, students’ parents/guardians were aware of the expectations of the class (baking, cooking, tools, and ingredients). The students’ experience and comfort level with using ovens and stoves certainly varied, and to keep things safe and simple, we did not use sharp knives or blenders. In hindsight, a signed parental waiver could have been administered, as well as a quick survey of experience and comfort at the start of the course, as well as safety reminders throughout.
I think the hands-on experiments that followed written lessons were very valuable. Seeing the lessons actually demonstrated in front of me helped me to get a more tangible sense of the science. —Incoming Freshman Student
We found this mini-course to be a joyful way to explore the chemistry of cooking — both for the students and the teachers! Course feedback forms demonstrated an overall positive experience for the students. When asked which activities or components of the class they found most valuable, two responses were: “I found the cooking portion of the course to be a lot of fun and the lessons helpful to understand what was going on inside the foods. In addition, it was nice to get to know my classmates!” and, “I think the hands-on experiments that followed written lessons were very valuable. Seeing the lessons actually demonstrated in front of me helped me to get a more tangible sense of the science.”
Since this was an optional elective for students without homework assignments or assessments, it is difficult for us to gauge how much chemistry content they gained from the experience. While we discussed topics including chemical behaviors and molecular structure, it was always in the context of a cooking application, rather than an opportunity for students to gain a deep understanding of the concept. Knowing that the students had not studied chemistry formally before this course, our hope was that, in the end, students would gain an appreciation of how chemistry influences the outcome of their cooking adventures. This appreciation was on display through their final recipe analysis project, and we hope it will carry over to their experience studying in a general chemistry class. Someone planning a class for credit or deeper chemistry understanding might need to consider the background knowledge of the students, plan more in-depth lectures, and assign homework and assessments.
We foresee a similar model being beneficial for homeschooled students, hybrid or online learning models, summer programs, and more. We also see opportunities where concepts from this course could be introduced in a standard chemistry classroom or in labs that might be performed at home in the evenings via Zoom. We certainly enjoyed diving into the topic, and are now motivated to bring more chemistry of cooking into our regular classroom! Due to the success of the mini-courses this summer, our school plans to offer them each year before the start of school, either in person and online.
Below are some of the main source materials we used for learning and planning course content, demos, and experiments.
- What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, by Robert L. Wolke, a professor of chemistry and author of The Washington Post column, Food 101.
- The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, a professor of science journalism and New York Times best-selling author.
- Videos from HarvardX’s series, titled Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. Our sources were primarily:
- Boston Local Owner of Flour Bakery Joanne Cheung on sugar chemistry,
- Daniel Humm from famed NYC restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, on acid in food, and
- Video by Jack Bishop and Dan Souza, two famous food chemists from Boston’s own Cook’s Illustrated.
- YouTube video series, What’s Eating Dan?, with Dan Souza of Cook’s Illustrated — especially his videos about egg whites, egg yolks, flour, and onions.
- YouTube video series, Hungry for Science, from the Exploratorium.
(article cover) mentalmind/Bigstock.com