Chocolate inspires

Cross-department collaborations enhance curriculum

Educators across three MSOE departments are changing the way students look at engineering – and chocolate. Dr. Cynthia Barnicki of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Anne-Marie Nickel of Physics and Chemistry and Dr. Katherine Wikoff of Humanities, Social Science and Communication teamed up to investigate how the study of chocolate could enhance engineering education and their findings were nothing short of sweet. “When we looked at chocolate as a material – as something that has a composition, structure and unique atomic properties – we learned there were many ways we could use it to complement our curricula, ” said Barnicki.


Drs. Barnicki and Nickel work with students at St. Joan Antida High School as part of their outreach grant.

From classroom labs to senior projects, chocolate proved a rich source of educational material, so much so that Barnicki, Nickel and Wikoff co-authored a paper identifying some of the ways it could be leveraged in an engineering curriculum. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) invited them to present their paper during the annual conference and exposition in June. “The feedback we received at the conference was very positive,” said Wikoff. “Chocolate is a topic that everyone gets excited by. It’s an imagination-sparker somehow.”

The spark was many years in the making for Barnicki, whose family has a tradition of making Christmas fudge. Each year, Barnicki joined her siblings and their father in making the homemade stovetop confection. When Barnicki’s father passed away unexpectedly in 2001, she wanted to continue the tradition and surprise her siblings with fudge. Gift certificates might have been a better option.

“I ruined two batches of fudge in two different ways,” Barnicki said. “In the first batch, none of the sugar crystallized. In the second batch, the crystals formed but they were too big – resulting in a fudge with a grainy texture.”

But all wasn’t lost. While contemplating her failed foray into fudge-making, Barnicki made a connection between her kitchen experiments and classroom instruction. “In the courses I normally teach, we look at how phase transformations occur in different materials,” she said. “This was the exact same thing – a way of looking at nucleation.”

Barnicki wondered what other learning connections could be made with food – candy specifically– as the entry point. She had a good reason to investigate further in 2012, when she was asked to prepare a lecture for Welcome Week. “I researched all different candies for the lecture – caramel, fudge, fondant – and in the process of researching, I really started to learn.”

Crossing departmental boundaries
Barnicki found a kindred spirit in Nickel, who started teaching a Food Chemistry course in 2013. “I had a lot of students who grew up watching the food network and it’s something they are pretty interested in so I wanted to build from that,” Nickel said. “In terms of connections to chemistry – chocolate is a unique food. Its molecular structure affects its physical properties – such as melting point and hardness.”

Nickel and Barnicki expanded the reach of their research in 2015, when they were awarded a $2,500 grant for their proposal “Exploring the Chemistry and Material Properties of Chocolate as a Method of Community Outreach.” They partnered with St. Joan Antida High School, where Nickel is a science coach through her involvement with the American Chemical Society. “We talked about the chemical makeup of the molecules, why chocolate is special, tested the hardness of it, talked about nucleation – how you can ‘ruin’ chocolate by not cooling it correctly,” Barnicki said. “One of the girls brought over a jar of lotion and pointed out that cocoa butter was one of the ingredients and it was exciting to see her making that connection.”

As part of her Food Chemistry course, Nickel invited Milwaukee artisan chocolate-maker Dan Bieser of Tabal Chocolates to speak with students. Tabal is what’s known as a bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer, which means Bieser doesn’t just make chocolate, he processes the beans. “The chemistry of the beans as well as the chocolate is very complex,” Bieser said. “You are dealing with sugar crystals and fat crystals that are very sensitive to temperature – and it needs to be both melted and cooled – tempering is what gives chocolate its snap and shine.”The relationship with Tabal Chocolates resulted in two senior projects.

Always keeping an eye on that bigger picture is what brought faculty together in the first place; a lesson they hope isn’t lost on students. “So much is gained when you work with people from different backgrounds,” Nickel said. “Our students are very focused on their area of study, but if we can expose them to other things – that will never be a detriment. Building a culture of learning for the sake of learning is important.”

Another curriculum-worthy topic that emerged from the chocolate research was the far-reaching economic implication of materials use. Studying chocolate alongside metals and plastics provides an opportunity to use a material familiar to all students in highlighting the complex web of relationships between relatively controlled manufacturing environments and unpredictable outside influences. “Ethics and sustainability are issues that are associated with all materials,” said Wikoff. “But because chocolate is so familiar to students it provides ad nice starting point for them to look outwards and see that engineering decisions take place within a much larger context.”

Read more about chocolate inspired senior projects.

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