EVANSTON, Ill. --- Teams of unlikely chefs bustled about the immaculate kitchens of the Institute of Culinary Arts at Robert Morris University Monday. With recipes in hand, they fiercely chopped, grilled and tossed various ingredients as a panel of culinary professionals from the Chicago area looked on.
The event wasn’t an episode of “Top Chef” but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for 36 Chicago middle school students from Northwestern University’s Science Club. Having learned about the science of food, the students took on the challenge of preparing more nutritious versions of favorite junk foods, including hamburgers, soda, ice cream, snacks and pancakes.
The 15 teams’ creations were evaluated on taste, nutrition and overall preparation, and each team delivered an oral presentation. The cooking event was followed by a meal and an awards ceremony, in which all teams received high praise for their efforts.
A trip to downtown Chicago to cook in professional kitchens may not seem like a typical afterschool activity. But Science Club isn’t a typical afterschool program. A partnership between Northwestern and the Robert R. McCormick Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, the program serves 60 youth from more than a dozen Chicago public schools. The students gather weekly from September through June to design and conduct experiments, learn about scientific principles and test hypotheses under the careful mentorship of Northwestern science staff and graduate students.
Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society, Northwestern’s office for science outreach and public engagement, founded Science Club in 2008. Recognizing the impact that mentorship and public school teachers had on his own scientific career, he designed the program to bring the same approach to inner-city youth in Chicago.
“We know that elementary and middle school years are critical periods for scientific learning and career aspirations,” Kennedy said. “And we know that mentorship and tailored instruction are powerful education tools. Science Club brings these ideas together in a fun, engaging way.”
Science Club is supported by a $1.4 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. The students and mentors work at the McCormick Club in Uptown in an authentic laboratory, which Kennedy built using cabinetry discarded from Northwestern research labs.
For Science Club members, the Monday night finale was serious business. With their mentors by their sides, the middle school students demonstrated the culinary and nutritional skills they’d recently honed.
Mary Abbott Hess, a nationally recognized expert in food and nutrition communications, helped develop the curriculum for the Science of Food unit and secured Robert Morris’ facilities for the finale. She also served as a judge.
“Like many children in the country, the children at McCormick Club do not have an ideal diet for lots of reasons,” Hess said. “So it was a real challenge to have them prepare snacks, beverages, sandwiches and breakfast foods that were healthier alternatives. And in doing that, they used all kinds of principles of food science and learned about leavening, carbonation, measuring and different nutritional components.”
For teachers at the schools Science Club serves, the program has helped reinvigorate waning science curriculums. Jen Lewin, a teacher at Graeme Stewart Elementary, said she has seen positive change in students who have stuck with the program.
“When they’re in my science class, they’re the first to raise their hands,” she said. “Kids are excited, and they want to be there. And they would rather be [at Science Club] than hanging out on the corner.”
McCormick Club program director Mitchell Day said Science Club’s popularity grew quickly in the early days with kids approaching him asking to get involved.
“It’s fun -- it’s a hands-on experience,” Day said. “For the first time these kids, who might never have had an opportunity to be proud of their academic work, pour their hearts into it. [They] get excited about it and receive positive feedback in a scholastic environment, which gives our kids a ton of self-confidence.”
For mentor Jon VanLeeuwen, Monday’s event marked the end of more than two years as a Science Club mentor. After completing his Ph.D. in neuroscience this summer, he hopes to continue to incorporate outreach into his life.
“Education is a powerful thing and can really help people realize their goals and further their lives, especially those who are in underserved communities,” said VanLeeuwen, who is the first person in his family to go to college. “And science is a great way to do that.”
This article originally appeared in Northwestern news