06/25/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Five Reasons to Play With Food in the Science Classroom

By Monica Sircar
AP Environmental Science teacher, Everest Public High School, Redwood City, California.

I am both a science teacher and a self-proclaimed food geek, and I enjoy integrating these two nerdy passions into my classroom. Luckily, opportunities abound. Food provides an ideal context for students to think deeply about scientific content and to develop scientific skills. I have used cooking and the food system as contexts for exploring science with my middle and high school students. In doing so, I have observed the following benefits to playing with food in the science classroom:

1. Connecting to broader systems

We often teach about science as a series of complex and interconnected systems. Food is uniquely positioned as a topic that bridges many of these in a way that is salient and relatable to all students. In the daily act of feeding ourselves, we take living material from the surrounding ecosystem and transform it into our own bodies-and in doing so impact the systems within and around ourselves. Teaching about the food system provides an opportunity for students to connect their own behavior with very small and very large systems in a way that is tangible, personal, and engaging.

"Studying food in a science class makes me think of impacts on us and around us," says senior Monica Ramirez. Ramirez chose to examine her diet's impact on the environment as part of a research project, and she was deeply affected by what she learned.

"I chose to become a vegetarian because of the food that I was studying. Most of them were negative impacts and it led me to stop eating every kind of meat that wasn't sea food."

2. Exercising inquiry skills
Many of the skills used in cooking are directly analogous to scientific inquiry, and I often say that my favorite laboratory is my own kitchen. Scientists and cooks both measure using specialized tools, employ techniques to modify the physical and chemical structure of substances, write and follow clear procedures (and hopefully both are willing to share interesting results!). Kitchen successes and mishaps are also great opportunities to practice asking (and testing) questions- Why does melted ice cream taste different when I refreeze it? How can I keep my fried eggs from sticking to the pan? What causes milk to curdle? Resources like Cook's Illustrated magazine, Howard McGee's On Food and Cooking, and the Exploratorium's "Science of Cooking" website provide starting points for leveraging the kitchen-as-lab connection.

3. Demonstrating scientific phenomena
While a middle school science teacher, I also taught a Friday cooking class. Since we didn't have a laboratory, I would often try to merge these two subjects and choose cooking projects that would also illustrate principles we were studying in science. Even students who felt they "got" heat insulation in our science lesson were amazed when we were able to blowtorch the outside meringue of the dessert "Baked Alaska" without melting the the ice cream within. Cheese-making provided an engaging context to discuss enzyme activity, and yogurt-making a context for bacterial growth. Cooking, from a scientific lens, is itself a set of physical and chemical transformations of and by biological organisms-thus opportunities to model phenomena with food span the scientific disciplines. Plus, you get to eat your data, which is awesome.

4. Acting as makers
Understanding the science of cooking provides students opportunities to act as makers and feel pride in their ability to create things of value. During a unit on microbes, my middle school students captured ambient wild yeasts and bacteria for a sourdough starter, as well as learned about preservation techniques humans use to deter less-friendly microorganisms. As part of this unit, students baked loaves of wild yeast bread and canned their own homemade jam. Besides deepening their understanding of the human-microbe relationship, students had the opportunity to deconstruct and recreate from scratch foods they had only experienced pre-made. Enjoying the fruits of her labor, one of our sixth graders wondered aloud why she would ever buy these items from a store now that she knew how to make tastier versions herself.

5. Understanding complex problems
Many of the complex scientific and social challenges we face today--such as biodiversity loss, obesity, pollution, and climate change--are directly or indirectly linked to the way we feed ourselves. Students who are able to connect these challenges to food are better positioned to consider and generate solutions. More importantly, the topic of food allows students to relate their own behavior to larger societal challenges, inspiring critical reflection, curiosity and action.

"I started to think about the choices that I had and the ones that were going to be the best not only for me but for the animals, the growers, the workers and my health and well-being," says senior Valeria Torres. "Now when I go to the grocery store, I not only think about my hungry stomach and my empty fridge but also about the field workers, the growers and the Earth."

Monica Sircar is an AP Environmental Science teacher at Everest Public High School in Redwood City, California, and a KSTF Teaching Fellow.

Five Reasons to Play With Food in the Science Classroom