I am really excited about my teaching this semester. I have used many successful ideas and they all seem to be going quite well. So I was wondering which one to share with you this time. In the end I decided that it was time to share one of the projects from my food chemistry class, especially since the project made me take a good look at my teaching objectives.
Some background information about my food chemistry class:
I especially love teaching when I can be innovative with group problems, to which the students mostly respond quite well. I find the idea of teaching of food chemistry in the traditional style very boring. The idea of regurgitating facts about water, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, vitamins, minerals ad nauseum is very dull. As most food science students have taken general and organic chemistry and biochemistry by the time they are studying food chemistry they should already have the basics. What they are lacking is practical experience applying these basics to food. So I designed semester long team projects for the students to work on and gain this experience.
As I believe that written and oral communication is probably the most important skill the students can learn while at university, every three weeks they prepare a report – the first is an introduction/literature review and the final report is almost a scientific journal article; the other reports fit somewhere in between these extremes.
Group members rotate so that they all have the chance to be a group leader and work on at least two different projects throughout the semester. This also means that they have the experience of joining an established team and having understand the new project’s research quickly so that they can be involved.
The Project Dilemma:
My food chemistry students are great this semester. Currently, there are three different projects, but I want to tell you about the fourth project that was stopped at the second report. I am not sure that closing that team down was the right decision in the long run; in the short term it was the only solutions as there was no where else to go with this project.
Just before the semester started I was given, as a door prize by the local food co-op, a can of hemp seed meal. That was intriguing as I did not know anything about this product so I wondered if it had any interesting properties that would give it unique functionality as food ingredient. So I decided to give it to the food chemists and see what happened.
Nothing is known about hemp protein powder except its nutritional value. It appears to be hemp seed meal except it appear not to be defatted. Not having any information was very, very frustrating for the food chemistry students. They did not know which way to turn. The first report basically reported on the nutritional facts and they did some studies – they baked a cake with and without hemp protein powder and tried making a smoothie containing hemp. The cake was green:
The smoothie was also green and the hemp did not stay in solution. By the time of the second report, we had basically exhausted the possibilities of hemp seed meal and it appears to have no interesting properties. When added to a liquid it does not alter the properties of the original solution. Hemp seed meal would not even make a paste when combined with water. By this time they were very frustrated, so I agreed that their second report should be the final and last report for the this project. To take up the slack, I made the other project teams larger. All the students were happier as the hemp project had become the joke project and probably the one to hope you would not rotate into next time.
So why am I now, three weeks later, thinking that ending the project was a mistake? Ending the hemp seed part of the project was correct. It is practically useless as a novel food ingredient; it even made the food products look less appealing by turning them green! However, looking back at my learning objectives, I wish I had kept the team going. The purpose of the hemp project was to experience what it was like to be handed a new ingredient and told to find out if it was any use. All my food chemistry students should have had this experience. As it was only three did. This means only three students experienced the frustration of trying to find information when there was none. Only three students had to design experiments from scratch with no information to find out if an ingredient had any potential in food production. Only three students had the opportunity to work on a project that even their instructor did not what to do next. Obviously, I have not short changed the other students by not giving them this experience, but they would have benefited from it if they had got it.
In future classes, I plan on having a few (two or three depending on class size) food ingredients with unknown potential. I may even ask local ingredient suppliers if they have appropriate products for this purpose. This way all students shall have the opportunity to design experiments with no information, with little help from their instructor. You never know, next time we may even find an ingredient that has some interesting properties.