“Today we’re going to learn about an amazing cellular process called fermentation.” Groans, eye rolls, and complete indifference - that was the initial reaction. Then I presented them with sugar, water, yeast, and root beer extract. I explained that we would be making our own root beer with those four ingredients. Suddenly, there was interest. Kids started asking questions. Before long, I had drawn a diagram on the board that detailed what would be taking place over the next few days inside our 2-liter soda bottles.
There was tangible excitement. For the next two class periods, I could see the kids staring at the bottles thinking about the invisible chemical reactions taking place. They soon noticed that they couldn’t squeeze the bottles any more. The day that we opened the bottles, I brought in ice cream and cups so that we could make root beer floats. There was not single off-task teenager in the room when I carefully twisted off the top. They could hear the sound of the pressure being released. They saw all of the carbonation. And for one class, there was so much carbonation that the root beer essentially exploded and hit the ceiling! As the students lined up to get their root beer floats, I asked them lots of questions. Where did the carbonation come from? What were the roles of the sugar and the yeast? What would have happened if we had used different amounts of those ingredients? How do we know that the yeast are living organisms? What are other examples of fermentation that we rely upon?
What brought me the most joy was observing those students who had once considered science completely inaccessible to them. They could answer all of those questions about fermentation, which allowed them to feel successful. These were students who often struggled abstract ideas, but when given an opportunity to practice science hands-on, they could connect the dots and take ownership of complex scientific concepts. It was activities like this that piqued their interest and made them excited to come to biology class. They were hungry to learn more.
Years later, I was hanging out in one of my favorite local watering holes when the bartender placed a pint in front of me. He said, “This is from that guy over there.” I looked over and the young man waved back, but I didn’t immediately recognize him. As it turns out, he had been one of my students several years before. He was all grown up now, complete with an impressive beard. He went on to tell me that he had become a professional beer brewer. But what knocked my socks off was when he said, “It all started when we made root beer when I was in 10th grade. Thanks for doing that.”
Teaching science using food as a lens is a highly effective way to engage children and teenagers. Need to learn about the bones and musculature of the human arm? Dissect a chicken wing. Want to learn more about pH? Grab some red cabbage. Confused about emulsification? Whip up some mayonnaise. From the moment that a student enters the kitchen, learning begins to take place. It starts with why we wash our hands, the importance of good hygiene, and food safety. While cooking, we explore chemical processes and the differences between cooking methods, like conduction, convection, and radiation.
Yet the learning is not limited to science. Scaling a recipe and measuring ingredients requires math. Reading a recipe is an opportunity to discover new vocabulary and reinforce comprehension skills. Exploring the history and the culture of the cuisine is an opportunity to showcase social studies and geography. However it goes much deeper than the academic benefits. There are also essential life skills. Through cooking, students learn organization, responsibility, patience, and how to follow directions. They discover where their food comes from, the importance of nutrition, and they develop their palate. When it comes time to be on their own, they are armed with a skill set that will benefit them their entire life.
It’s never too soon to get a kid into the kitchen. Even the most reluctant student has a favorite food that can be the gateway to learning. And who knows? It just takes one spark and a future chef, beer brewer, wine maker, baker, or other culinary professional could emerge.
Want to get your kid into the kitchen? Chef Jennifer has over 17 years of teaching experience and curriculum development. She can tailor a cooking experience to meet the needs and interests of your child. Email Chef Jennifer for more information.