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Sourdough for Science: Part 10

May 23, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

Steps for developing a partnership

  • Meet in person to discuss the project, and find out what both parties need.
    • The professional currency for scientists is typically publication, though some researchers do outreach to satisfy the “Broader Impacts” requirement
    • Publishing research may help some teachers advance their career or prepare for a graduate degree; but many are looking for an exciting lesson plan that aligns to curriculum standards, and doesn’t take too much time or money.
  • Be transparent and realistic about the time and resources each participant can afford to spend on the project. A project that complements the curriculum, empowers students, and yields publishable data is a win-win-win, but it’s only possible if everyone is informed and 100% on board.
  • Plan to meet several times before, during, and after the project. Solicit feedback throughout, and make sure you have a mode of direct communication set up to help troubleshoot protocols in real-time. (Phone, text, VOIP, etc.)

Setting up a pilot program

If possible, arrange a small-scale trial run before increasing the scope to fledge your lesson plan from the lab to the classroom.

  • Year 1Try to limit your first attempt to one or two classes in a single school. If you can, visit the classroom; interacting with the students helps make the project feel personally relevant. If possible, you can add a second attempt in the same academic year (e.g., fall and spring semesters, or in a different class or school).
  • Year 2 – Now that you have a working model, you can expand to include additional classes or schools. Be sure to adjust the activity based on previous teacher feedback. If possible, develop additional materials to support curriculum standards.
  • Year 3 ­– By now, your project should run fairly smoothly, and you will have learned how to avoid major pitfalls. This year, you can try to engage teachers on a broader scale, and/or tweak your experimental design to test new hypotheses.

About the Pilot Program

Our original protocol was developed by my colleagues, Dr. Anne Madden and Leonora Shell, in the Dunn lab at NC State University.

Exploris (a charter school) has the flexibility to try out new things, so their teachers were critical for testing the “beta-version” of the original sourdough activity. One of their favorite stories to recount is the morning they discovered that all the students’ sourdough starters had overflowed their jars! Luckily, they were willing to take the time to clean up and chat with me about how to scale down the recipe to keep the sourdoughs growing but prevent future overflows. They were critical players in helping to make the project feasible for other schools.

Moore Square was next to try and they faced a new set of challenges. The students had to share resources across groups, so every day they struggled to complete their tasks within the class period. Their teacher still had to meet other curriculum standards, so they were only able to collect three of 10 days’ worth of data.

Based on both schools’ experiences that first year, I collected “best practices” from each teacher and made the following changes to the activity for 2019:

  • I experimented in my own kitchen at home to scale the size of the starter from a quart jar down to a half-pint jar. The smaller jar is easier for children to handle and easier to stir with a plastic spoon. It also requires a fraction of the flour, which, together with smaller, cheaper jars, left more budget to buy materials for each group, and nobody had to share. With a full supply kit for each group, teachers can pre-set their classrooms and students can complete their measurements much more quickly. (Details: In fact, it’s so much more efficient that students at Ligon middle school (the new addition this spring) were able to complete the project in their homeroom period, instead of during their science class. This strategy makes educational use of an otherwise “wasted” period, without interfering with teachers’ science classes.)
  • I also created additional materials requested by teachers to align with curriculum standards, including a and YouTube videos about how to create and maintain a sourdough starter.

My hope in sharing the “evolution” of this citizen science activity is to give an inside perspective on its execution and improvement, to help teachers feel prepared for potential challenges in advance, and for them to feel empowered to troubleshoot and adapt the activity to each classroom’s unique needs and limitations. Citizen science can certainly take extra effort, but I think it is also absolutely worth it.

Suggestions for funding

Sourdough for Science: Part 9

May 22, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

I asked students to fill out an anonymous Google form after they completed the project, to help gauge which materials were most helpful and whether we had achieved our education and empowerment goals.  Of the 275 students who participated in the sourdough project, 156 completed evaluations.

It was no surprise that the taste test was well received – gluten intolerance aside, who doesn’t love to eat bread? But I was pleasantly surprised that the students rated the protocol as the most helpful, followed closely by the taste test and my YouTube videos (Figure 1: click to enlarge).

Figure 1. How helpful were the supporting materials?

Figure 1. In addition to background slides and step-by-step instructions, I provided informational posters with illustrated facts about the science of sourdough, and two short YouTube videos showing how to create and maintain a sourdough starter. I also worked with teachers to write a comprehensive reading assignment that introduced key concepts from ecology and microbiology. Student feedback helped to give me a sense of which materials had been used across classrooms, and (of those) which were the most effective learning tools.

When asked which part of the project was their favorite, it was also great to see how many students enjoyed the scientific process – especially feeding the starter and collecting data (Figure 2: click to enlarge). These varied responses make me hopeful that we were able to personally engage more students by appealing to their natural curiosity with a personally relevant concept (food) and a variety of supporting materials.

Figure 2. Students' favorite part of the project.

Figure 2. Students’ favorite parts of the project were the taste test, feeding the starter, collecting data, learning about microbes, and working together.

My goal with any scientific outreach is to improve understanding and appreciation of microbes through hands-on science activities. To measure whether I actually achieved this goal, I first asked how much experience students had had with citizen science, sourdough, and microbiology before the project began. While many students had heard of each topic before, very few people had firsthand experience (Figure 3).

Figure 3. How familiar with citizen science were you before this activity?

Figure 3. Many students had heard of citizen science, sourdough, and microbiology prior to this project; but few had direct experience.

This “naïve” crowd was the perfect blank canvas, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive: sourdough is not only an interesting subject, but the project helped them to learn and made them feel like real scientists (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Sourdough for Science was a success! The project was interesting, helped students learn, and made them feel empowered as citizen scientists.

Figure 4. Sourdough for Science was a success! The project was interesting, helped students learn, and made them feel empowered as citizen scientists.

Finally, I asked for suggestions on how to improve the project (Figure 5). Most students thought the project was great as it is; but I was impressed by the thoughtful critiques that other students offered. Many suggested specific changes that would help make the instructions clearer, while others wanted to learn more about how the baking process transforms sourdough starter into bread. A handful of students even suggested ways to change the experimental design that would enable participants to test alternative hypotheses – further evidence that we had helped to inspire scientific thinking.

Figure 5. Most students were happy with the existing project, but several wanted to learn more about the science of sourdough and the baking process.

Figure 5. Most students were happy with the existing project, but several wanted to learn more about the science of sourdough and the baking process.


Sourdough for Science: Part 8

May 22, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

Dear readers – sorry for my absence! Where has the time gone?

Have you ever noticed that baking techniques are like parables for life and science? Since my last post, I’ve felt like a batch of dough left to ferment in the fridge;  it takes a long time, but the end product is more complex and ultimately worth the wait. I hope you’ll agree!

Before diving into the student evaluations, I wanted to take a look at their hard-earned results. That data set has been a labor of love, let me tell you! Two sets of ninety-six data sheets each: one for the starters, and one for the bread tasting. And such an exciting story!

Smelly starters

The aromas that the students detected changed over time, together with the height and pH of their starters. Together, these data tell the story of microbial succession (Figure 1: click to enlarge).

Figure 1. Students measured the pH, height, and odor of sourdough starters to monitor the process of microbial succession. As microbial populations grow, yeasts produce more carbon dioxide, which increases the height of the starter, while bacteria produce acid, which lowers pH. Increasing acidity selects for yeasts that produce more appetizing aromas, letting us know that the starter is ready to use to make bread.

Figure 1. Students measured the pH, height, and odor of sourdough starters to monitor the process of microbial succession. As microbial populations grow, yeasts produce more carbon dioxide, which increases the height of the starter, while bacteria produce acid, which lowers pH. Increasing acidity selects for yeasts that produce more appetizing aromas, letting us know that the starter is ready to use to make bread.

  • The flour and water paste is quickly colonized by microbes. Sugar and starch are easy to digest, so the early “pioneer species” quickly multiply. Yeasts in the flour spew carbon dioxide, producing bubbles that cause an early “explosion” in height (see Part 2 of this blog series). These yeasts produce other gases, too, and not all of them smell like something you’d like to eat. In the first week, many students described their starters’ aromas as pungent bodily odors (e.g., farts or stinky feet), or something rotten… one group even described the smell as “death”!
    1. Of the nearly one trillion species of microbes estimated to live on the planet, relatively few help to make sourdough bread smell and taste delicious through the process of fermentation. Many other microbes are decomposers, and produce toxins or other compounds that could make us sick. Luckily, decomposers often also produce rotten smells. Our aversion to those smells may help to protect us from food-borne illnesses.
    2. The bacteria multiply too, and produce sour-smelling acids that lower the pH of the starter, and kill many of the yeast “pioneers.” This “die-off” due to changing environmental conditions causes the height of the starter to drop for a few days.
  • Eventually, a new community grows. These new yeasts are acid-tolerant, and produce the aromas we tend to associate with bread.

When I took a closer look at the data, the story got even more exciting! Each different type of flour appears to feed a unique microbial community, whose yeasts and bacteria behave differently, and grow and change at different rates (Figure 2: click to enlarge).

Figure 2. The power of flour: each type of flour contains a unique combination of nutrients and microbes, which cause the starters to behave differently.

Figure 2. The power of flour: each type of flour contains a unique combination of nutrients and microbes, which cause the starters to behave differently.

Figure 2. The power of flour: each type of flour contains a unique combination of nutrients and microbes, which cause the starters to behave differently.

See how rye and millet peaks rose the highest, but on different days? Those are the day 2 and 3 “explosions” that students recorded in February! It also appears that each starter grows a different “climax community”; pH decreases over time, but plateaus to a different stable point in starters fed different flours.

Taste test

The results of the taste tests were interesting, too: the students described what they smelled and tasted in unexpected, but surprisingly consistent, ways. For example, a LOT of students smelled soy sauce aromas, and many also smelled cheese. In a way this makes sense – soy sauce and cheese are also products of fermentation. In a way, the students’ descriptions indicate which fermented foods they are most familiar with (compared to some of my beer-centric descriptors in Part 6).

But the students picked up on some very specific smells particular to each flour type, too:

  • Red Turkey wheat smelled and tasted spicy.
  • Rye smelled like vanilla.
  • Emmer smelled like pepper.
  • Einkorn smelled like mayonnaise or fish food.
  • Millet smelled and tasted like corn.

Students also seem to agree that, compared to the rest, the bread baked from the all-purpose starters just tasted … bland. This, too, is an exciting, though unintended, result: that the sourdough project may have exposed students to the new and exciting flavors of whole grains.

Sourdough for Science, Part 7

March 4, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

Reflections on the Sourdough for Science project

Immediately after the taste test (more about that in the next post!), I flew to Chicago to present my citizen science efforts at BakingTech 2019. It was an exciting trip: I learned a lot from industry bakers, and they were excited to hear what we’re learning about sourdough with the help of citizen scientists. Since returning to Raleigh, I’ve been reflecting on the past month of middle school magnificence, as I read through the students’ and teachers’ evaluations. Partnerships between scientists and teachers can be a difficult dance. Teachers want to enrich their curriculum with meaningful activities that empower their students; but schedules aren’t always flexible, and many teachers can’t afford the time to teach a new activity on the fly.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with so many adventurous partners: from the teachers and students who literally make the science come alive, to Joshua’s dedication to supplying us with the best materials for the project, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve produced together. I have also enjoyed documenting both the science and the process of collaboration. If anyone out there is feeling inspired, I will be posting some suggestions for developing partnerships between scientists and teachers early next week.

Student and Teacher Quotes

“I have worked with a lot of community partners…but truly this experience is one of the tightest I have ever experienced. I really appreciate the structure, progression, vision, and science you bring to the work.

“A parent asked what sourdough had to do with the curriculum …. I was very capable of articulating the connections.”

— Shannon Hardy, 8th grade teacher at Exploris Middle School

“This was a really interesting project, and it was really fun and educating to learn about different microbes and how they turn bread into sourdough bread. I am very glad that I learned this because before I was familiar with sourdough bread and I had eaten it before, but I had no idea that microbes were involved with it being made. During this project, I learned how to work well with a group by using craftsmanship and I learned about the history of different breads and the science behind bread.”

— Avery Riordan

Sourdough for Science: Part 6: Taste Test

February 25, 2019

After I took the starters to Boulted Bread on Sunday, Joshua Bellamy (co-owner of the bakery) fed them extra flour to grow them up overnight. Early Monday morning he built the doughs, mixing each starter with the same blend of flours so that the only differences in flavor would “arise” (haha) from the microbes unique to each starter.

Bread dough in containers

Joshua combined each starter with the same blend of flours, water and salt to bake bread for the middle school students to taste. Photo: Joshua Bellamy, Boulted Bread.

Joshua let the doughs rise at room temperature for four hours, then wheeled them into the walk-in cooler to continue to rise overnight.

The “bulk ferment” at a warmer room temperature helps the microbes to grow quickly and especially favors the bacteria that create acid, giving sourdough its characteristic tangy flavor. The cooler temperature of the “overnight proof” in the walk-in cooler favors yeast, which produce more complex aromas and flavors.


Joshua came back on Tuesday at 4am to bake the bread and give the loaves time to cool. I got to Boulted Bread at 6:45am, and we started slicing. I immediately noticed that the all-purpose and millet starters produced loaves that were flatter than the others. The others showed a more normal rise, though the Red Turkey wheat had a soft, spongy crust. The other breads were sturdy and tough to cut through; but, by comparison, the Red Turkey wheat crust felt almost fragile … I was careful not to crush the loaf while I sliced.

Erin and Joshua slicing bread.

Erin McKenney (left) and Joshua Bellamy (right) slice each loaf of bread into 26 pieces so that middle school students can compare the flavors created by the microbes in six different sourdough starters. Photo: Kevin Jefferies.

At 7:30am I started deliveries while Joshua continued to slice bread. Between drop-offs to middle schools, I came back and wielded a knife once more. We finished slicing at 9am, and by 10am I had finished the final delivery and returned all the transport bins to Boulted Bread.

All that work, and I hadn’t actually saved any bread for myself! Luckily for me, April Shoemaker had leftovers at Ligon middle school, and she shared a few slices of each with me so that I could indulge in my own taste test that night.

For each bread, I first unzipped the plastic bag and inhaled deeply through my nose a few times. After I identified the aromas specific to each bread, I reached in and took a slice. I inspected the air bubbles and felt the texture of the crumb. Finally, I took a few bites — of the crust and the inner part of the loaf — and chewed slowly, exhaling through my nose after each swallow to savor every scent and flavor.

All purpose

  • smells roasty
  • flat loaf, medium-hard crust
  • medium bubbles, close crumb, moist and tacky
  • tastes very mild, faint tang


  • smells tangy, a little like beans
  • flat loaf
  • tastes… creamy, like the flavor of grits


  • toasty, a little like spent grain
  • medium bubbles, some large
  • mild grain flavor, tiny tang at the end, almost a roast-coffee flavor in the crust


  • sour and funky, like a farmhouse ale
  • small bubbles, close crumb, tacky
  • bright, almost effervescent, lemony acid


  • grass, grain, and a hint of peanut
  • medium and large bubbles, spongey inside with a hard crust
  • grainy and grassy flavor

Red Turkey wheat

  • roasty, with a hint of hops
  • small/medium bubbles, a little tacky
  • spongey loaf, with a soft/flexible crust
  • coffee, a little sour like yogurt

These are just one person’s opinions, of course. I’m really excited to see what the students thought — of the bread, and the entire starter experience.

Sourdough for Science: Part 5: The Secret Lives of Starters

February 21, 2019

On Friday, having collected the supplies and selected the six best sourdough starters from each middle school, I returned home to sort through the backslop.

What is backslop?

Before you can feed a sourdough starter, you need to “backslop,” or remove a portion of the mature starter, making space for you to add more flour and water. (A mature sourdough starter needs to be fed proportions of flour and water that are equal to the amount of starter. If you didn’t backslop, you would have to increase the amount of flour and water exponentially with each feeding!)  Backslopping also removes a portion of the microbial community, so that the microbes in the starter can continue to grow and divide without running out of nutrients. Backslop can be used to bake bread, or any other sourdough recipe: I add it to waffles and zucchini-nut bread, and I even know people who bake it into crackers for their chickens. If you’re not in the mood to bake, extra sourdough also makes an active compost additive.

Backslop photo by Erin McKenney

Backslop. Photo: Erin McKenney.


After 10 days, the microbial communities in each starter had grown enough to require two feedings a day. In the second week, students had noticed more “hooch” in the mornings, a sure sign that their microbes were going hungry after 24 hours. The good news: this means they had grown thriving microbial communities that could soon be baked into bread. In fact, the communities grew so quickly that I had to feed every starter twice a day (every 12 hours) to make sure the microbes in each starter had enough nutrients to continue to thrive.

It took me two hours to feed the 18 best starters, and another four hours to empty the remaining jars (almost 80 of them). Four gallons of composted backslop later, I had a sinkful of jars soaking in hot water to slowly dissolve two weeks’ worth of flour cement.

Saturday morning, I fed the starters again, and began to notice some interesting differences. (Maintaining 18 starters over a weekend provides comparative insights that you just don’t get from the long-term care of a single starter.) It turns out that the starters fed different flours not only rose to different heights, but did so at different rates. Millet shot up first, within two hours of being fed; but, because there was no “gluten balloon” to capture the carbon dioxide, the bubbles escaped, and the starter fell as quickly as it had risen. Rye was next; and, because that grain contains gluten, its rise was sustained. Emmer and Red Turkey wheat followed, and then einkorn – slow but steady, with bubbles forming a foam on top instead of boosting it up from within. The all-purpose starter dragged in last, more like a jar of thick glue than an active starter, compared to the others. I guess it’s hard to compete with the fresh-ground nutrition packed into a whole-grain flour.

Sourdough for Science: Part 4: How to pick the best sourdough starters

February 21, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

On Friday, February 15, the students entered their 10th day of data, gathered their supplies, and voted to select the best starter grown from each type of flour. The six best starters from each school would be baked into loaves at Boulted Bread for a taste test on Tuesday. But how to pick the best starters?

We first identified which starters had the lowest pH (3.0–3.5, instead of 4.0) and created the most carbon dioxide (as measured by the number of bubbles per cm2 and the total height that the starter grew). These traits indicate the microbial functions you would expect in a mature sourdough starter: bacteria create lactic acid or acetic acid, which lower the pH; and yeasts create carbon dioxide, which forms bubbles and makes the starter rise. The starters with the lowest pH and the most carbon dioxide are therefore most likely to have reached a climax community.

If two or more starters were “tied” for pH and carbon dioxide, we next looked for consistency over time (which, again, indicates a stable climax community) and also compared the smells of each starter. Smell has been an important food factor for humans for millennia: microbes that make us sick tend to create smells that we don’t find appetizing. No one wants to eat something that smells rotten, even if we don’t know which microbes might be making that smell.

Now that the best starters have been chosen, I’ll take care of them over the weekend. Boulted Bread will mix them into bread dough on Monday, and bake loaves for the students to taste test Tuesday morning!


The box full of starters. Photo: Erin McKenney.