New food science class brings diverse flavors and students to the table
The course, offered by the Department of Food Science and Technology, is using food as a teaching tool to explore science and civilization.
The distinctive smell of baker’s yeast – nutty, warm, and slightly sweet – circulated around the classroom.
Sticky hands dug into balls of dough, pushing, folding, and stretching it – a tedious but necessary baking kneading process. The technique helps develop strands of gluten, resulting in a smooth, fluffy ball of dough perfect for a pizza.
This pizza would soon be joyfully consumed by Allison Richards, a student at Virginia Tech.
Richards is one of 60 students taking Virginia Tech’s new course, From Raw to Burnt: Exploring Science and Society through Foods, offered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food Science and Technology. This is the second semester the university has offered the class that studies scientific principles and the development of society through the lens one of humans most desirable and most critical basic needs: food.
Students learn through weekly lectures taught by different professors in the department. Each professor offers an area of expertise and integrates chemistry, biology, and physics through topics such as salt and sugar, protein, dairy and eggs, and fats and oils. Each lecture is paired with a hands-on lab in which students prepare something related to these food topics.
From Raw to Burnt is Virginia Tech’s first course that counts as either a Pathways 2 (Critical Thinking in the Humanities) or a Pathways 4 (Reasoning in the Natural Sciences). This aspect attracted Richards, a first-year student majoring in commercial real estate, along with many other students, to the class.
Herbert Bruce, assistant professor of practice for undergraduate education, led a recent lecture and lab on carbohydrates. And there is no better way to demonstrate the science behind the beloved carb than through the college student food staple of pizza.
Bruce physically conducts the lab in Wallace Hall. In response to student feedback for more in-person workshops after the course’s inaugural semester, he now virtually instructs an additional lab in the Food Science and Technology Building as well as some students in their home kitchens.
“Food clearly has a science to it, but it also has a history,” Bruce said. “A whole history of exploitation, a history of power struggles. And while we were brainstorming this course, we thought, ‘Why can’t we be telling these kinds of stories?’”
Bruce started the cooking demo by activating baker’s yeast in warm water, called fermentation, a process with which he is very familiar. He is a co-creator of the Fightin’ Hokies lager, one of two beers created by Virginia Tech faculty in partnership with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond.
“Sometimes people have this idea that fermentation just makes alcohol,” Bruce said. “I’m like, ‘yes,’ but, it also makes pizza dough, many other foods, including pepperoni and yogurt, and a lot of the drugs that the pharmaceutical industry produce.”
Students worked in pairs to make the dough, learning about leavening agents, gluten, carbon dioxide, and the characteristics of acids and sugars along the way.
Bruce said what he enjoys most about the course is the diversity of its participants. Much like food, the class brings students from different backgrounds, academic years , and majors to the table.
Students like Mario Alvarez, an undecided life sciences major from Mechanicsville, Virginia.
“I enjoy how this course builds on my prior knowledge of biology, and hopefully it will help inspire me to decide what career to pursue,” Alvarez said.
Whatever that career path may be, it may involve food and the family business, Alvarez said. His parents own and operate a restaurant in his hometown.