Cooking is Good Chemistry – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Cooking is Good Chemistry

Associate Professor Chemistry Justin Miller’s advanced chemistry class, “Bonding with Food: The Chemistry of Food Preparation, Production and Policy,” is fighting against the notion that “chemistry” is  like a four-letter word in our society. In fact, chemistry is something we see happen every day – in our cars, mobile phones, and in our food. Aimed at getting kids, and the HWS and Geneva communities, excited about science, Miller’s class recently hosted an Edible Science Fair.   

“Food has instant, obvious broad appeal,” explains Miller, noting that the idea for the event came from an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” where the contestants had to communicate an element of food science through an Edible Science Fair. “An audience typically needs to be told how certain aspects of science impact their daily lives, but that is not the case with food!  And in today’s American culture, people are obsessed with food science, even if that’s not how it’s framed.  Low-carb diets, trans-fats, protein-laden energy bars, sugary energy drinks:  these all involve chemical concepts.”

Intended to expose the intrinsic relationship between cooking and chemistry, the Science Fair offered Miller’s students the opportunity to act as teachers as they took the chemistry that they have been learning all semester and translated it into something palatable.

“After teaching other people, I felt like I understood the topic in much more depth,” says Josh Moss ’14, who was helping to demonstrate the chemical principle of leavening, which causes bread to be lighter and easier to chew. “The most difficult part of portraying our topic of leavening was being able to gauge what the audience could understand. In order to cope with this issue, we had sections of interactive activities for younger children and sections for older children to learn the chemistry. We also had fun examples like an exploding volcano that would appeal to people of all ages to explain carbon dioxide production.”

The Science Fair is a step toward dissembling the idea that food and chemistry are mutually exclusively because the two are present in our everyday lives, says Miller, noting that its practitioners range from chefs to laboratory chemists to the 4-year-old playing with bubbles in the bathtub.

“What is new to me, comparatively to how I grew up, is that you can make science really attractive by establishing a relationship with everyday life,” says Dean of Hobart College and Professor of Philosophy Eugen Baer, who attended the event with his son. “This is the best way to show people that science is not only something fascinating, but something we use every day.”

Students present at the Science Fair ranged in major and purpose, from the science major looking to get extra credit or check out the class for next year to the undeclared first year who came for the free food but stayed to see the demonstrations and learn something about the chemistry of cooking. 

“I was mostly excited about the food,” says Natalie Singer ’15. “However, once I got here, I found the whole event really interesting because we eat food everyday but don’t normally get the opportunity to see the science that is taking place.”

In the process of teaching the HWS and Geneva communities to think differently about food, the HWS student perceptions of food evolved to internalize the idea of food as chemistry, with many of them changing their habits as consumers or the way in which they approach food and cooking.

“Now, when I am cooking and something goes wrong, I can now think about it in a chemical way and possibly fix it,” explains Emily Kellogg ’13, who notes that, since taking the class, she has begun to read all of the ingredients listed on food labels. “Recently, I employed this scientific analysis when I was making chicken with a cream sauce. The cream sauce was really runny and I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realized that I’d forgotten to add the starch, which acts as a thickening agent.”

Funded by a grant from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the class has given students the opportunity to broaden their intellectual and scientific horizons as they engage with everyday life in an academic manner, says Miller.

First offered in 2010 thanks to a grant from CTL, the “Bonding with Food” class has been an interest of Miller’s for a few years and he is excited to be teaching it again this semester.

To learn more about the science behind cooking, check out the student-developed and student-run blog.

In the photo above, Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller demonstrates the best way to create a pizza.

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