There is a drought and the price of tomatoes has just doubled. Your company makes a quality tomato sauce and you can't raise the price of your sauce more than 20 percent without negatively affecting your customer base. What are you going to do?

Margot Vigeant

Students whipping up tomato sauce in their residence hall kitchens might be taking their first venture into cooking for themselves - or they might be doing homework for engineering class. 

Professor Margot Vigeant's Applied Food Science in Engineering course emphasizes hands-on research and student-driven problem solving. Rather than lecturing, the chemical engineering professor presents students with problems, then asks them to find solutions.

For example, Vigeant has told students, "There is a drought and the price of tomatoes has just doubled. Your company makes a quality tomato sauce and you can't raise the price of your sauce more than 20 percent without negatively affecting your customer base. What are you going to do?" The first step for students is to do an initial report - in this case, they make tomato sauce and document the process. "Most have never done it before or if they have, they have not taken notes on the process," Vigeant says.

Once they understand what goes into a basic tomato sauce, they start asking questions. Are there rules dictating how many tomatoes have to go into something labeled "tomato sauce"? Vigeant helps students wade through the FDA and USDA websites to find relevant regulations and figure out what they mean. Are there additives that can help thicken the tomato sauce? Vigeant heads to the grocery story to pick up tomato juice, corn starch, xanthan gum and corn syrup so the students can experiment and report out on the results. (Corn syrup, she says, was a disaster.) At least one group of students came to the same conclusion seen in industry: Bulk up the sauce with less expensive vegetables, such as onions, peppers or carrots.

Such student-driven, hands-on approaches to learning are nothing new to Vigeant. She and colleagues at other universities are collaborating on an NSF-sponsored project to study a strategy based on the premise that the best way to learn something new can be to teach it. Students are assigned to produce a video explaining a difficult concept to their peers, to watch student-produced videos, or to both produce and watch videos. The study will assess how well students grasp and retain the concepts after each of these three approaches.

In other research, Vigeant, along with Professor Mike Prince, chemical engineering, and Professor Katharyn Nottis, education, have created quick, inexpensive experiments and simulations to help engineering students overcome common misconceptions about how the physical world works. The activities have proven effective at helping students grasp and retain difficult concepts, says Vigeant, but professors at other universities have balked. "Even a $10 experiment becomes serious money when you have more than 100 students in your class," she says. She and her colleagues are now systematically adapting the experiments to determine how ease of use for professors relates to learning for students in search of the happy medium.

Posted September 12, 2013

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