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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.

 

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