Using Online Modules in Molecular Gastronomy

CHEM 023: Molecular Gastronomy is a course for non-science majors and fulfils the College science requirement. At the beginning of the semester, the course had 37 students enrolled. These students come from a variety of majors and were fairly evenly distributed among freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Previously, it had always been the case that students who sign up for the class generally love to cook; however, this group was a bit different. Approximately two thirds of the students fit that description, but one third did not, based on an initial survey conducted on the first day of class.

The idea behind the course is to use the common experience of food and cooking as an accessible hook to teach legitimate scientific concepts. I've taught this course three times previously, and students reviews indicated they thought the class needed a hands-on component. I think this is a reasonable expectation for a class on this topic, but there is no appropriate facility on campus in which to host such a lab and rarely TA support for it. The first time I taught the class at Villa le Balze (Italy), facilities were less of an issue because we had food-related field trips and went to a cooking school. It's not clear how field trips would work on the Main Campus given students' schedules. I have therefore tried to supplement with demonstrations, videos, and even cooking homework assignments done in small groups (the latter takes some coordinating since not all students have even reasonably equipped kitchens) to try to fill the gap.

My ITEL project was to incorporate online cooking school lessons into CHEM 023 as an alternative way to deliver a "lab component" that would tie into the course material. America's Test Kitchen (ATK) online cooking school offers classes for a modest fee (2 week free trial, $19.99/mo thereafter) and their approach to cooking is very scientifically based. The question was whether students would respond positively to the online courses or not and whether it provides a reasonable vehicle for learning.

In addition to introducing online ATK modules in my course, I also examined all the material used in the edX course (SPU27x) "Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science." This course emphasis is more material science than chemistry, but I found it to be valuable resource for rethinking content delivery. Though not part of my original ITEL plan, I also went through Khan Academy online courses in General and Organic Chemistry and identified sections that were most relevant to the topics covered in CHEM 023. The way Khan Academy courses are broken up into digestible units (no pun intended) made this a very valuable resource, particularly for those who had no high school chemistry.

Ideally I envisioned that the course would include two small-group cooking assignments (followed by an in-class presentation) and two ATK online assignments. I would then ask the students for feedback on which exercise they preferred, and how much they felt each type of assignment contributed to their own learning. Unfortunately, we lost two class periods to weather related school closures, and after unsuccessful attempts to reschedule a class time for >30 people, I decided to cancel the second small group cooking assignment/presentation in favor of a take-home exam.

The first ATK assignment was given at the beginning of April, approximately ten days before the 2nd exam (and due on exam day). In lecture we had just finished talking about bread baking (flour, yeast, chemical leaveners, etc.). Students were asked to do the ATK online course on "Gluten Free Baking." The content in the video dovetailed nicely with the material presented in lecture, and I was aware of at least two students with gluten-free diets. Students worked through most of the sections in the lesson (Lesson Overview, Intro to Gluten-free baking, Test your IQ, How gluten-free baking works, Using gluten free flour blends, Chewy sugar cookies). Viewing the entire lesson probably took about an hour to complete. The written part of the assignment read:

ASSIGNMENT: "Please write a 2 page (~500 word) review of the lesson. Include at least 5 bullet points for specific things you learned (science related) in watching these videos. What was/wasn't clear? What was/wasn't interesting? Would you recommend this particular lesson/assignment in future versions of CHEM 023? Did this inspire you to watch more of the cooking school videos?"

Most students commented that they would be interested in watching more of the cooking school videos, though the fact that they were not anonymous comments may bias the responses.

I also intentionally included a few questions specifically from the "Gluten Free Baking" video on the second exam. This was content that was not covered in lecture, only in the online assignment. In general, the students did as well on the exam questions related to the video as they did on the rest of the questions except in three cases where the students could not answer these questions at all, because they had not done the assignment.

For the second ATK online lesson, I wanted to give students some options so they could learn about something they were most interested in. The ATK site sorts the lessons into four categories: Technique Lessons (35), Cooking Basics (8), In Depth Courses (4) and Recipe Lessons (132). In my opinion, there is good material in all of the categories, but I constrained the assignment by asking them to go through one of the lessons in the Techniques section. Of the 35 choices, students completed 15 different lessons, with only 4 different lessons attracting 3 or more students. When they repeated the written assignment, overall their reviews of the lessons were mixed. Some were very well received and had a lot of science in them, others they found boring or relied on cooking- specific terminology rather than scientific terms learned in the class. This feedback was especially valuable, because in the future, I can avoid lessons where student(s) reported that they didn't learn much compared to the Gluten-Free assignment.

Admittedly, with the exception of their exam grades, the data I collected is primarily subjective and in essay form. I had intended to distribute an online survey to the students at the end of the semester with the help of CNDLS, but I did not get to it.

The main point I take away from this project is that some of the online lessons are useful and will likely be used again, though they are not a complete substitute for hands-on learning. From working through the edX course and ATK videos, I very much appreciated some aspects of how they had structured the content. For most lessons, they would show a short video, then ask a few questions, then show some additional videos. Many of the edX videos were available on YouTube, which I have downloaded and archived. (The cohort suggested iVideo which has been a great find!) The next time I teach this class, I plan to require students to watch a video before coming to most lectures to hopefully facilitate discussion at a higher level. I believe mandatory viewing of some of the Khan Academy videos early in the semester will really have a large impact the next time around. I pretty much recommend them to everyone now.