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By Laura Short

SCIENCE TEACHER BETTY CROCKER LOOKED OUT AT HER eighth-grade class. The blank stares were not encouraging. “So much for the traditional method of teaching the difference between a fossil mold and a fossil cast,” she thought.

That November evening in 1982, she went home and prepared a Thanksgiving gelatin mold.

The next day, she removed the mold from the gelatin and asked her class, “Do you want to eat the mold or the cast?”

They got it.


What’s in a name?

“With a name like Betty Crocker, who could resist?” remembers Eddie Shaw, professor of elementary science education at the University of Alabama.

Fifteen years ago, doctoral students Betty Crocker, now UNT associate professor of teacher education and administration, Barbara Reed and Eddie Shaw observed that they had all made similar discoveries in the classroom — food analogies motivate students to learn difficult concepts. Their teaching backgrounds covered the gamut — elementary, middle and high school — and it worked on all levels.

They presented the workshop “Food for Thought” at a national conference for science teachers. The biggest draw was Crocker.

“Is this a joke?”

“Is there really a Betty Crocker?” After carefully explaining that Crocker was neither the Betty on the box nor a representative of the company, the three got down to business. One workshop after another, those in attendance shared their stories in return. Crocker, Reed and Shaw became a repository for other food ideas. A book series — designed for children, written for and field tested by teachers — was born.

Now four Food for Thought books provide teachers with 65 edible lessons in process skills, physical science, life science and earth science.

“When students have fun learning, they are more likely to remember what they’ve learned,” says Reed, K-12 science coordinator for Gwinnett County Schools in Georgia. “I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t like to eat the lab equipment.”


The aha factor

One of Crocker’s favorite activities is “Meringue Magic.” Students prepare Baked Alaska, an ice cream treat sealed with meringue and baked in a small toaster oven. In the process, they learn about insulation.

“This one has drama,” says Crocker. “Even those students who have had the dessert before don’t believe it will work.”

Models that can be manipulated help students understand and master complex ideas — and the potential ingredients are endless. The “Processing Pancakes” experiment uses four types of milk and the same pancake recipe to communicate the concept of manipulating variables. In “Which Can Can?” students float cans of regular and diet soft drinks in an aquarium to demonstrate density. “Mighty Messengers” links gumdrops with toothpicks for DNA and RNA models.

“My students enjoyed simulating an earthquake (moving two halves of a layered sandwich up and down),” says Brenda Swirczynski (’93), now an educator with Botanical Research Institute of Texas. “They learned new knowledge in an unexpected way.”


The science of learning

Some of the lessons in the books list careers associated with the concepts being taught, and teachers are encouraged to dress the part. To set the stage for an environmental field lesson, for example, Swirczynski once dressed as a field biologist, wearing Indiana Jones-type attire. Immediately the students knew this was not going to be a normal lesson.

“It engaged their interest even more,” she remembers.

“Science can seem intimidating,” says Alice Delaney, a UNT graduate student in education. “Making it fun and interesting for students now may encourage them to consider science careers later. It’s a start.”

A science class can have more new vocabulary than a foreign language course. It is up to the teacher to use the familiar as a bridge to the unfamiliar, according to Crocker, and food analogies can introduce such relationships.

“Students are motivated by anything they can eat,” says Mary Ellen Fernandez (’99 M.Ed.), a fifth- grade teacher at Heritage Elementary in Highland Village. “And it’s easier when students can see things and move things with their hands.”


Sample results

Last year Fernandez took a survey at the beginning of the school year. Three students said science was their favorite subject. At the end of the year, she queried the class again. Seventeen children raised their hands. She attributes the increase to her use of food-based activities.

“Students love science,” says Crocker. “The younger they are, the more they love it. The older they get, the less you hear this because they are given the idea that science is for someone else, someone smarter.

“We have to change that.”


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