07/26/2013 02:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chemistry Cook-Off: Appreciate the Science Behind the Food

By Tracy Schloemer
Chemistry teacher, STEM High and Academy, Highlands Ranch, CO.

When I told my future mother-in-law that I was going to teach high school chemistry, she reminded me with a twinkle in her eye that she had successfully lived her life without really understanding the subject. She challenged me to tell her how chemistry was relevant to her as a wife, mother, and accountant. Three years later I was teaching chemistry at the Denver School of Science and Technology when I read an article about how a teacher used a chemistry cook-off to engage her students in the study of physical and chemical change and unit conversions. I immediately decided to bring a chemistry cook-off into an elective I was planning to teach.

Fifteen brave freshmen and sophomores signed up for the class. Each student chose a recipe for the cook-off. The choices were as diverse as the students themselves: cookies, fettuccine alfredo, tortas, and crème brulee were a few examples.

I designed the course with this end in mind: how can I use the recipes to get my students to discuss and share the science inherent in the cooking? Homemade guacamole provided a way to learn about the principles of smell and taste. When my students made stir fry, they experimentally determined which types of food reactions (protein denaturizing, Maillard, or carmelization) were likely occurring based on the temperatures of the food. We made whipped cream, cheese, and ice cream to learn about leavening agents, enzymes, and colligative properties, respectively.

As most teachers have experienced when first teaching a new class, things did not always go as planned. There's a lot I would like to change when I next do a cook-off. I will make sure that my feedback is constructive and helps students improve various skills throughout the class. I would also limit the range of topics I introduce and focus on a few that help students understand how science affects them on a personal level.

On the whole, however, the class was a powerful example of how to engage students with practical science, and of how to encourage collaboration behind the scenes. Our school's creative engineering class made us cheese presses. Around the lunch table, teachers gave me ideas for recipes, and a few donated materials. KSTF fellows pointed me to invaluable resources to help design and fund the course.

Most of all, my students enjoyed the experience. Here is what a few of them said:

  • "I didn't know there was so much chemistry in cooking."
  • "Now I am even more interested in cooking. I cooked and baked a lot before, but this class allowed me to learn the science behind some of my cooking which can help it improve."
  • "I liked how I was able to learn about what was inside my food."
  • "This class made me understand cooking better. I knew that to make water boil hotter you added salt. I now understand why this happens, and it makes the entire process more enjoyable because I get to share this information with my peers."

I think my mother-in-law would be proud.

Tracy Schloemer is a KSTF Teaching Fellow and a chemistry teacher at the STEM High and Academy in Highlands Ranch, CO. She previously taught chemistry at the Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton in Denver. This will be her 4th year teaching chemistry.

Chemistry Cook-Off: Appreciate the Science Behind the Food