New course gives a tasty spin to chemistry education
The aroma of garlic and onions hits instantly as you walk into the classroom. Five pairs of students shuffle around their assigned stovetop—one in the pair looking intently at a sheet of paper and spouting directions while the other handles the pan of sizzling ingredients.
“Oh no, is it burnt?” one student asks. “No, it looks fine,” another responds with a smile. “What’s the next step?”
As they work, Mason chemistry and biochemistry Professor, Rebecca Jones, moves from station to station to check in on each group. She created the recipe for the risotto they are all cooking for lab and wants to be sure the students not only think through the steps, but also pay close attention to what is chemically happening to each ingredient. How does the ingredient change in the way it looks and tastes?
Chemistry in the Kitchen (CHEM 460) is a new course offered at George Mason University that uses everyday recipes to demonstrate chemical concepts taught in the classroom. The idea came to Jones a year ago, who worked closely with the Department of Nutrition to secure a cooking classroom for the lab component of the course.
“Every kitchen is a lab when you think about it,” said Jones. “Everything that we eat is made up of molecules and this class is designed to help students learn what molecules and chemical changes are associated with the food they’re eating.”
Jones explained that the class covering molecular extraction was quickly followed in lab with students using ingredients to make pour over coffee to tangibly see molecular extraction take place as the hot water poured onto coffee beans created a brown liquid.
“The cooking experiments really reinforce your understanding of the topics you learn in class,” said biology major Wilson Plummer. “You’ll touch on a topic, and then get to see it in action.”
Plummer said he liked the interactive nature of the class most, learning about caramelization one day, and making caramels the next. Listening to information on starch hydration and then baking bread.
While students partake in their lab assignment, they routinely take out their phones to capture images of the recipe’s current state from several angles. Instead of the traditional lab report, Jones requires the student to publish a blog post within Blackboard that mirrors a lab report, but incorporates photos throughout the cooking process so classmates see differences between their food and comment on each other’s work.
“Sometimes everyone does a slightly different thing while cooking so they can benefit from seeing those differences in photos. It’s part of their grade to comment on each other’s reports and engage,” Jones said.
Participants in the course not only follow provided recipes, but also design their own food experiment and execute it at the end of the semester. Students in the current class did not hold back on creativity—one student tested how sugar interacted with different gelling agents to make the best gummy bears while another measured fermentation’s effect on homemade hot sauces.
Juliana Primavera, a senior chemistry major, said the class combined her love for both cooking and chemistry and that she didn’t want to pass on an opportunity to learn from Jones.
“Chemistry majors welcome such opportunities to be creative in our classes,” she said. “The cooking element not only gives us the hands-on experience that allows us to truly understand what's going on, it also makes it engaging, memorable, and fun.”
Primavera’s final project will focus on the effect of varying lye concentrations on pretzel texture. “I wanted to find a recipe that I knew I would use continually, would be complicated chemically, and because I love soft pretzels so much, I figured it would be a perfect learning opportunity.”
Inspired by a lab where they made caramel sauce earlier in the semester, Plummer decided to focus his final experiment on soft caramels—more specifically how fat (e.g., dairy milk vs coconut milk) impacts the crystal structure of caramel.
After a few weeks of experimentation, students presented their findings to the class and showcased their work at a public poster session in May.
The lab quiets as burners switch off and the cooking ends. Jones designs recipes to only make two servings (one per partner) in order to eliminate food waste. As stations are cleaned and items put away, students also take time to complete their notes and catalogue their photos—followed, of course, with a break to eat the fruits of their labor. Bon appétit!