Developing a Cooking Chemistry Elective

wood shop made cheese press

To squash any misconceptions, I would like to say first and foremost I am not a great cook. My husband graciously does most of the cooking in our house. However, as a chemist, I am fascinated by the complex reactions involved in everyday life. Pair this curiosity with the requirement to teach an elective, and the Chemistry of Cooking elective was born.

Here is a summary of the one-trimester elective:


I even had the wonderful opportunity to write about this in a blog through the Huffington Post. However, that version of the story doesn’t really get into the blood, sweat, and tears of planning. Read on for the gory details.


The Back Story:


I am not only interested in food chemistry, but also project-based learning (PBL). I used this course development not only as a content learning opportunity, but as a sandbox to try out a long-term project in a safe, low-stakes fashion (no end of year standardized test in this class).


It is one thing to have inspiration, and a completely other thing to make that idea come to life. Here is how it worked for me. First, I listen to a lot of podcasts (I have a commute)- NPR’s “Radiolab” and How Stuff Work’s “Stuff you Missed in History Class” are favorites of mine. I would learn interesting tidbits here and there, and kept a list.


Next, I stumbled upon an article in NSTA’s “The Science Teacher” about a “Chemistry Cook-Off” Project. That project supplied the “umbrella” of the course- all things students learned were to theoretically be applied to achieve project outcomes.


I soon realized I still knew next to nothing about food chemistry, and reached out on a teacher message board and received suggestions for books and labs to check out. Lunchtime talks with colleagues provided great ideas too. Here is a summary of my planning process:



A more comprehensive list of books and sites:


Here is my initial concept map of big ideas and potential labs, heavily influenced by the resources above 



My guess is you are wondering a few things right now related to money. First, I will be honest: the start up costs were not small. I budgeted each lab and came up with an approximate number and asked people for money. I applied for grant money from KSTF, my district gave me money, individuals at my school/family members gave me money or donated items. IKEA is where I bought cheap pots, pans, and utensils. I bought hot plates from Amazon. Our school’s engineering teacher made us cheese presses as a project in his course (see below). I went to local vendors asking for money (Home Depot, grocery stores, etc) armed with a tax-exempt form and letter from my dean certifying my request. It was a lot of work, but starting months in advance paid off. I still had to charge my students $20 each for consumables, in addition to a donation of cleaning materials. Most kids were able to pay the fee, and we were fine overall.



I learned so much from this experience. First, opportunities exist, no matter what your context looks like. With creativity, persistence, and some luck, I taught this in a school with about half of students on free and reduced lunch. I begged, borrowed, and stole ideas from others (with proper citations, of course). I spent a Christmas break planning this course, but the obsessive pre-planning and budgeting paid off. To be fair, I am so “Type A” I have been called “Type A+”, but there is no way I could have pulled this off at the last minute. I learned so much about my students in this course- students readily offered their own experience and assimilated them into what they were learning in class (“Why do we wash our hands after handling eggs?” “What’s a torta?”). I also tried activities that failed miserably - I still shudder at the jigsaw activity I tried using Harold McGee’s text as readings (let’s just say the reading level was a bit of a stretch).


I only taught this elective once. I changed schools, and was a bit maxed out time-wise. I would love to teach this again! I loved the project, and students learned. However, I think if I had framed the individual learning activities around themes of food molecules (water, proteins, lipids, sugars) students would have learned more. It turns out there are many J. Chem. Ed. articles that you might want to explore as well: JCE Resources in Food ChemistryDesign of a Food Chemistry-Themed Course for Nonscience MajorsExperimenting with the Sweet Side of Chemistry: Connecting Students and Science through Food Chemistry​Science of Food and Cooking: A Non-Science Majors Course​ are a few to get you started. Don't forget to look at the supporting information linked to those articles for more details to help you develop a curriculum.


Food safety: It is vital to work with your school and administration team to make sure that you are handling food in a safe, appropriate fashion. 


Good luck pursuing your passions! Have you taught any fun electives you’d like to share?


Update: I published Additional Resources 12/16.



General Safety

For Laboratory Work: Please refer to the ACS Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools (2016).  

For Demonstrations: Please refer to the ACS Division of Chemical Education Safety Guidelines for Chemical Demonstrations.

Other Safety resources

RAMP: Recognize hazards; Assess the risks of hazards; Minimize the risks of hazards; Prepare for emergencies


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Comments 2

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Fri, 11/11/2016 - 10:21

I haven't seen this book! LOVE!