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Pieces of Eight


FoodMASTER Integrates Food with Math, Science

By Christine Neff

Food. It’s something we interact with every day. We prepare it. We eat it. We know we’re not supposed to play with it. But is it something we can learn from?

Developers of East Carolina University’s FoodMASTER initiative believe so. In fact, they said, without realizing it, we’re exposed to mathematical and scientific concepts each time we use food, making it an exceptional teaching tool.

“The beautiful thing is that everybody eats food every day, everybody uses food all the time. For children, we’re finding, it serves as a bridge between something very common and something that can be overwhelming, like math and science concepts” said Virginia Carraway-Stage, registered dietician and coordinator of the FoodMASTER project at ECU. “When you throw food in the mix, learning these concepts no longer seems like a difficult thing to accomplish.”

ECU developers of the FoodMaster curriculum use food to help teach children about math and science. (Contributed photo)

The food-based curricula is designed for students in kindergarten through college. The program uses hands-on, inquiry-based learning activities to help students learn science, math and nutrition concepts.

“Children love anything to do with food and food preparation,” said Melani Duffrin, faculty member in ECU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We’ve been watching enthusiastic young students engage in scientific processes such as measurement, data collection, critical thinking and comparative analysis in very natural, self-directed ways, and it’s exciting.”

Duffrin developed the FoodMASTER program at Ohio University in 2005 with elementary school teacher Sharon Phillips.

In Phase I of the project, Duffrin, Phillips and Jana Hovland, FoodMASTER associate director for Ohio, created a 45-lesson curriculum for third through fifth grade students. The lesson plans use food preparation and handling to improve students’ math and science skills. They also developed an interactive, computer version of the program.

This fall, the National Center for Research Resources, a part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded the project a 2008 Science Education Partnership Award worth $504,000. The grant will fund Phase II, which will research the effects of the multimedia materials and investigate the best ways to disseminate the curriculum.

The project received a second grant in November. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a $150,000 Higher Education Challenge Grant to support a college-level component of the FoodMASTER initiative. With the USDA grant, researchers in ECU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Department of Child Development and Family Relations will develop college courses that use food to engage students.

An on-campus gateway foods course will be offered to nutrition students and family and consumer sciences education students. An online gateway foods course will be open to all. Seniors in nutrition and family and consumer sciences will complete a capstone, service-learning course to gain practical experience working in the community.

“The gateway food science course will offer an inquiry-based approach to teaching food science,” Carraway-Stage said.

“We are developing video modules around farmers’ markets, kitchen demonstrations and grocery store experiences and will feature chefs and food experts.”

Faculty members hope the online course becomes popular with high school family and consumer sciences teachers.

“With teachers better prepared to teach food science linking agriculture and biotechnology, high school students also will be better prepared to pursue food-related professions in teaching, agriculture and biotechnology,” said Sue Reichelt, ECU faculty member and the project’s expert in family and consumer sciences education.

Duffrin will supervise the implementation of the higher education component, develop multimedia materials and teach the sophomore-level food science courses. Nancy Harris, ECU nutrition and dietetics faculty member, will be the primary instructor for the senior-level course.

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at