SEAS Profs Heat Up Science Courses

Science professors blend cooking with soft matter physics

Several professors at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have taken a novel approach to teaching physics—cooking in class.

Using cooking techniques as physical demonstrations of scientific phenomena has garnered popularity among Harvard’s science professors as a way to make course subject material more accessible for a wider range of students.

Physics professor David A. Weitz—one of the creators of the new General Education course on cooking to be offered next fall, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter”—described the blend of making meringue and studying soft-matter physics.

“You start with egg whites, a liquid, and you mix in air, a gas, and you end up with a solid,” Weitz said. “We try to figure out why that happens and understand it.”

The new course is just one incarnation of the food-science trend at Harvard.  Every year, SEAS offers a popular holiday lecture series, including topics such as “The Sweet Science of Chocolate” and “Squishy, Gooey, Stretchy: The Science of Making Pizza.”

“Promoting scientific literacy is important,” said Amy C. Rowat, a postdoctoral fellow who works in Weitz’ lab. “Students who have very little background in biological physics can relate to cooking.”

Rowat writes in her “Science and Food” blog that food is “an ideal medium to engage people in science: everyone eats.” She adds that various dishes exemplify scientific concepts ranging from phase transitions to fermentation.

Additionally, incorporating food in physics classes can raise the awareness of important health and nutrition concepts, Rowat said.

“I think there is a trend towards knowing and understanding more about the food we eat, ranging from sustainability to health and nutrition,” Rowat said.

Weitz added that he simply hopes the course’s entertaining approach will better engage students who may not have a background in science.

“Cooking is a creative art, and science also takes a great deal of creativity—as scientists we try to be as creative as we can,” Weitz said. “My motivation is to teach people science, but to make it real and exciting.”