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Gail Webster: Chemistry of Food and Cooking

Gail Webster is a professor of Chemistry at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. Dr. Webster is teaching her course, Chemistry of Food and Cooking, in the Alto Adige province of Northern Italy. The POGIL Inquirerchecked in with her to see how the course was going.

Explain Chemistry of Food and Cooking. If I were one of your potential students, why would I want to take this course?

A: Chemistry of Food and Cooking explores basic chemical concepts (atomic structure, periodic properties, bonding, ionic nomenclature, interpreting line structures for molecular compounds, acid-base reactions, stoichiometry and much more) through the study of “food molecules” –water, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Chemical reactions are studied using these types of molecules and also through cooking processes. For potential students, I would talk to them about how learning chemistry through a common context, food, makes learning the material more interesting since it is relevant to their everyday activities, like cooking and eating. I would also mention that the course is not a cooking class, but the study of many of the same chemistry topics that one would learn about in a regular general chemistry.

 Q: What do you want your students gain from taking this course?

A: It is important for students to understand that no food is chemical free and that we use chemicals and chemistry in all aspects of our lives. I also want students to be able to develop a question involving food or food preparation that may be explored by designing and executing an “experiment” in their own kitchen.

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching this course?

A: Many of the students in the class are juniors and seniors who have delayed taking their lab science requirement. Because I teach mostly first-year students in general chemistry, I’ve enjoyed working with students who are getting ready to graduate and who seem to me to be more outgoing and talkative with each other and me during class. Students in Chemistry of Food and Cooking often tell me they’re “not a science person” and that they dreaded having to take (and pass) a science class to graduate. By the end of the course, some of the most reluctant science students become genuinely interested in chemistry and are truly surprised about how much they’ve learned.

Q: How many years have you been teaching this course? What has changed since you first started teaching it?

A: I think the first time I taught the course was in 2005, so I’ve been teaching it for more than ten years. When I first taught the course, I worked on developing the lab portion of the course. The course was first taught in the evening, and the adult students in the class did many of the labs at home. I was able to incorporate some experiments that are done in the chemistry lab like extraction of fats, TLC of plant pigments, and synthesis of esters. I think it’s important for students taking a chemistry course at the college level to gain experience working in a chemistry lab although we do some labs in a food-safe environment as well so we can taste the products of the reactions. The first few times I taught the course, it was all lecture, with some in-class activities. Each year I would incorporate more student-centered activities, but now the majority of class time is focused on POGIL activities.

Q: Has teaching this course abroad added anything to your understanding of the course as an instructor? If so what?

A: Living and learning in Northern Italy (South Tyrol) has been a great venue for this course. We’ve been able to visit local cheese making facilities, wineries, a distillery, and a salt mine and incorporate some of the rich history of this region into the course. What I’m always struggling with is what NOT to include. There is so much that can be addressed, from growing food to food preservation to nutrition and more.

Q: At the 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education you led a session titled “Using POGIL activities to teach non-science majors in a Chemistry of Food and Cooking course” how have you incorporated POGIL into this course?

A: POGIL is used for students to learn about each of the major food molecules and other chemical concepts. I use activities for students to learn about atomic structure, the periodic table, ionic compounds, molecular compounds, fats, amino acids, carbohydrates, acid-base chemistry, amino acids, proteins (structure and folding), and stoichiometry. The models are focused on chemical compounds found in foods and chemical reactions used in cooking.

Q: How has the incorporation of POGIL impacted the course?

A: The depth of chemistry that is presented to students through these activities has made the course more rigorous. Students are also very involved in class. They ask more questions and they seem to have more fun in class….and I do too! Since there is no real textbook on the market for a course like this, the POGIL activities fill an important gap in the materials available for the course.

Q: It appears schools across the country have a chemistry and food course similar to yours. What about the topic appeals to educators?

A: I think anything that makes chemistry interesting, relevant and fun appeals to educators and students alike. Having students leave a class with a positive attitude toward chemistry is very rewarding.

Q: Using the concepts of your course, what meal is the most fun to cook?

A: I can tell you a dinner menu that our class developed and cooked here during our study of proteins. We made a frittata, so we denatured proteins using both physical force (beating eggs) and then with heat. The frittata called for ricotta cheese, which we made from local milk. The milk solids were precipitated using an acid (lemon).

The students prepared a salad, and made a dressing from olive oil (fat), lemon juice (aqueous) and mustard (emulsifying agent). At dinner, each of the students involved in the process explained the science involved in the particular dish that they helped prepare.

Q: What is your favorite unit or activity to teach?

A: I like teaching acid-base chemistry! We make a cabbage juice indicator in class and in their groups, students work through a POGIL activity using the data they’ve collected by observing what happens when the indicator is added to various foods. It’s fun to use so
mething from the grocery store (or farm) to learn about acids, bases and acid-base reactions.