The Food Lab for Kids: where food, science, and education are blended together

July 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm
Participants of the pilot program were involved in hands-on, lab-based classes on concepts in food science and nutrition. Photo by SEAS

By Bonnie Lei, Class of 2015

“I don’t like cheese,” Dennis declared to me at the Cambridge Area IV Youth Center in his middle school matter-of-fact way. After more questioning, I realized that his opinion was based on a diet of Kraft Singles and packaged string cheese.

Acclaimed cheesemaker Lourdes Smith of Fiore di Nonno, glanced over my shoulder and gave Dennis a knowing smile “We’ll see about that little buddy. Wait until you taste real cheese you make yourself!” Ten minutes later, after a quick lesson on curds and whey, our dozen students had their sleeves rolled up, marveling at their ability to stretch their own curds into string cheese in splashing tubs of hot water.

The Food Lab for Kids is a community outreach program that showcased real, healthy food and deliciously fun science lessons this spring. It all began with an idea fueled by my passion for the sciences, which was sparked by research opportunities I had at a young age. I saw how exciting science could be and I have since become dedicated to ensuring that young students are able to have an engaging early exposure to the sciences, locally as well as worldwide.

Here at Harvard, I saw a great model in the Science and Cooking course, which has given legions of non-science undergraduate students an introduction to the physical sciences. What if we could utilize the fun and delicious aspects of cooking to engage younger students in the sciences, and involve them in healthy, nutritious lifestyles?  It all came together when I had a brainstorm session with my friend and co-founder Marina Chen.

Together we created The Food Lab for Kids, gaining strong support from Science and Cooking professor Michael Brenner, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Director of Education Kathryn Hollar and research/education specialist Jorge Pozo, and Science and Cooking course staff Christina Andujar, Pia Sorenson, and Naveen Sinha. With financial support from a SEAS Nectar grant, we launched the project over the spring in collaboration with Area IV Youth Center, whose Director Nicole Rodriguez enthusiastically agreed to host a pilot run of our Science of Pizza curriculum.

Our team of nine Harvard undergraduate students, many who are alumni of the Science and Cooking course, served as our teachers for weekly hands-on, lab-based classes on that incorporate science concepts and good nutrition habits. Week by week, we covered everything from the fermentation in pizza dough to the Maillard Reaction on caramelized vegetable toppings to thickeners in marinara sauce. We saw the growth of our students as they grasped onto concepts learned from week to week. Their center staff and parents were also impressed by the kitchen skills the kids obtained, everything from safe knife skills to proper stove work.

The culmination of the program experience was in a research project they conducted in the final weeks of the course. We saw this as the ultimate test: will the students be sufficiently motivated and empowered to come up with their own research questions and design proper experiments to test their hypotheses? The answer was an overwhelming yes!

Students formed groups and decided their own research projects. They ended up exploring how to make fluffier pancakes (the magic is in beating the egg whites!), chewier cookies (with the use of different sugars), and crunchier French fries (by altering the cooking method). They had the opportunity to present to their peers, at an Area IV youth center hosted science fair, and then again at the SEAS Design Fair. The students will have another opportunity to showcase their work to the greater Cambridge/Boston community, as well as world class chefs and scientists, at a rescheduled Cambridge Science Festival event at SEAS this coming fall.

After our successful pilot, we are excited to be working on expanding the offerings of The Food Lab for Kids locally and even eventually nationwide. Our goal is to demonstrate how science curriculum can be effective in through this engaging medium, and lead to positive life skills in health and nutrition, while making this opportunity accessible to all kids.