On a spring afternoon a group of fourth- and fifth-graders gather after school in a classroom at Dawes Elementary School. Divided into teams, the students are stirring, mixing, pouring and taste-testing their own healthier version of ice cream in hopes that their creation will win over the three judges who will determine which recipe is the best, a culmination of an eight-week-long investigation into the science of food and nutrition.
The students are participating in a collaboration between the Northwestern University Science in Society (SiS) Science Club and Evanston’s Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.).
SiS, an NU office that is dedicated to science education and public outreach, serves as a bridge between the researchers at NU and the general public. The program includes a number of initiatives that emphasize teaching strategies and skills to help scientists share their knowledge with people of all levels in the community.
The Science Club, a mentor-based program for youth, was originally developed in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools and has begun to expand its model into Evanston with the Y.O.U. partnership.
Thanks in part to a grant from The National Institutes of Health, the Science Club has developed six curricular modules focused on different health topics. Previous modules included topics on Bio-Medical Engineering, Health and Athletic Performance and, most recently, the Science of Food and Nutrition. NU graduate students mentor youth in small groups on a new eight-week curriculum each quarter.
While the initiative’s original intent may have been to help improve the communication skills of the scientists, the transformative effect of Science Club on the students is clear.
“We are seeing huge academic gains from these kids,” said SiS Assistant Director Rebecca Daugherty. “They are achieving at higher levels, choosing science career paths and seeing firsthand that science is a relevant part of their lives.”
Lauren Geary, an NU graduate student and mentor, said the program has been beneficial to both her and the kids.
“It helps the kids become excited about science, and for me it has been a great way to learn how to communicate sometimes difficult scientific concepts to a much younger audience than I’m used to,” she said.
The students and mentors participating in the recent module spent the first few weeks of the class talking about nutrition and experimenting with different recipes.
“We recognize the students have heard the message they should eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk, but it’s not really changing their habits a lot,” said Dr. Daugherty. “So we took a different approach and started with the foods they like. We looked at ice cream, pancakes and chips and analyzed what is really inside them and how they are actually made.”
After a period of experimentation and exploration, the students were challenged to come up with a healthier version of one of the recipes.
“We gave each team an original ice cream recipe full of fat and sugar and asked them to figure out a way the ice cream could be made healthier and still taste good,” said Dr. Daugherty.
The students played around with alternative ingredients such as yogurt and fruit and eliminated at least half the sugar in some cases.
Ismael Soto, a fourth-grader at Dawes Elementary School, said when he and his partner decreased the amount of sugar from the recipe, they realized they needed to add more fruit and vanilla extract to make it taste better.
“I used to think that all healthy foods tasted nasty,” he said, “but now I know they don’t have to.”
SiS is planning to expand its Science Club offerings with Y.O.U. in their summer camp program this year.