TU Students Cook Up Some Tasty Chemical Reactions

Monday, April 02, 2007

University of Tulsa chemistry professor Keith Symcox had a problem. He had to bring together the accumulated courses taken by his students during their studies and synthesize it into a senior-year capstone course.

“I knew I couldn’t teach this with a PowerPoint slide,” Symcox said. “That would put them all to sleep.”

Instead, he put chemistry concepts and principles into the context of something everyone enjoys – food. The capstone course, “The Chemistry of Cooking,” engages students in applying their chemistry knowledge to the science of food preparation. Each class experiment focuses on a particular physical chemistry, organic chemistry or biochemistry concept that students have studied in previous courses, and applies this concept to a food or group of foods.

Some topics of the course include “Effects of pH and Fat Dispersion in Milk (yogurt, ricotta cheese, butter, whipped cream),” “Crystallization of Sugar Solutions (peanut brittle, fudge, ice cream)” and “Generating Bread Foams: Risen Breads (bagels, pretzels, cinnamon rolls).”

The class has been a big hit with students because of its practical application to the everyday world – and the chance to eat their creations in class. Symcox also conducts informal presentations at student apartment common areas around campus to get students interested in chemistry and to think of science in a different way.

Symcox recently presented his culinary chemistry “active learning” course at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Chicago. A student survey of his class revealed that despite the complex chemical concepts explored in the course, students did not find the technical material difficult. Symcox hypothesizes that the presentation of complicated chemistry issues in a fresh way made the information easier to learn.

“It’s a creative way to get students excited about chemistry and to see how the science is all around us,” he said. “I ask my students why you cook a roast for more time than a filet of fish or why you blanch green beans. There’s a chemical reason behind the differences in their food preparation.”

Students are now gearing up for the final exam that will be themed after “Iron Chef,” the popular Japanese cooking show featured on the Food Network. Students will prepare their foods, explain the chemical reactions that took place to make the meal and then be critiqued by faculty members serving as judges.

For more information about “The Chemistry of Cooking” class, contact Amethyst Cavallaro, TU Office of University Relations, (918) 631-2656 or amethyst-cavallaro@utulsa.edu.