Kitchen Biology: Making Research More Accessible and Inclusive
Professor Arnold Mathijssen, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania
Alumnus of the MBL Physiology course, 2022
Goals and Objectives:
We have developed a series of outreach events, where high-school students from underrepresented backgrounds learn basic concepts using inexpensive tools and materials in the kitchen. We organized workshops about topics that combine different areas in science with food, ranging from the science of chocolate to food safety. During the workshops, students worked on experiments that can be done in any kitchen, so that they can spread these ideas among their friends at home.
Over 70% of high-school students in the city of Philadelphia are underrepresented minorities, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of outreach events has diminished significantly. Many students could once again be engaged using kitchen science, because it is affordable and accessible. Moreover, the kitchen is full of surprising phenomena. Scientific innovations have refined food since ancient history, while creativity in the kitchen has inspired breakthroughs in biology and other sciences. Making this research accessible could address inequality and social injustice at an early stage of education, especially now.
We organized four events with students from two local schools in Philadelphia, the Penn Alexander School and the Parkway Center City Middle College. We have two types of outreach events: (1) We visited these schools to perform experiments in their science classrooms, and (2) we invited whole classes of students to come and visit the University of Pennsylvania to attend our Kitchen Science seminar series with distinguished external guest speakers. For the workshops at the school, we have assembled a team of three undergraduate outreach coordinators who prepare the experiments and demonstrate them on site. We organized the following events:
- Event 1: The science of eggs. We invited Prof Rosemary Trout from Drexel University to talk about her work on the science of eggs. She explained the many different ways that eggs can be prepared, and she demonstrated how to make Italian meringues, marshmallows, and Hollandaise sauce. The students could then taste these in the classroom! Prof Trout also spoke about food safety and food microbiology, in particular how bacterial infections from eggs can be prevented.
- Event 2: The science of chocolate. We invited Prof Ramaswamy Anantheswaran from the Pennsylvania State University to talk about his work on the science of chocolate. He explained how chocolate can be melted to shape them into specific forms, such as chocolate kisses with cream inside, or chocolate coatings of ice cream cones. Prof Anantheswaran also spoke about the science of microwaving. Here, the shape of the container has a large influence on how long it takes to heat a meal.
- Event 3: The science of whipped cream. Students performed a set of outreach experiments about complex food materials, which are neither liquid nor solid, but rather something in between. Many food products have such complex behaviours. A typical example is whipped cream, which flows when it is pushed out of its container, but it behaves like a solid in the absence of such forces. The students did experiments to measure how much force is required to make the whipped cream flow, which is sometimes called the required yield stress.
- Event 4: The science of cheese cake and Oreo cookies. Students performed a set of experiments about the internal structure of food, and how this influences the taste and mouthfeel. To demonstrate this, we first used cheesecake. The white part of the cake look like a structured foam. When it is stirred thoroughly with a spoon, the cake loses its structure and becomes creamier. As a result, it tends to have a more intense flavour, perhaps because it sticks to the tongue. The students then did a similar experiment with Oreo cookies. When twisting the cookies, initially it takes a lot of force, but then it becomes much easier, so the material has changed. The students enjoyed these experiments very much!
For each event, the students were first given an introduction to the relevant scientific themes, and how this is connected to cooking. We explained the history and the scientific background, and then we demonstrated a series of experiments that anyone can do in the kitchen with basic tools and ingredients. We put a strong emphasis on making science more accessible, but also to raise awareness for sustainable food production and consumption.
For each of the 4 events, we welcomed about 30 students from low-income families in Philadelphia, so the total impact was a reach of about 120 students. Moreover, we expect some indirect reach from students showing the experiments to their family and friends.
The most important outcome of this outreach initiative was to provide disadvantaged students with access to education and science through low-cost kitchen experiments. There is an urgent need for making science more inclusive and accessible to students from under-represented backgrounds. This kitchen science outreach series could help with providing the inspiration, network, and affirmation for these students to launch a successful future. We thank the MBL for making it possible to launch this initiative.