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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

The Science of Cheese

We had a brown bag lunch in my room a while ago and one student who was eating lunch with me to make up for some violation of the class rules finished his detention duty and came over when I offered him a snack. The snack I had in my lunch that day was left over from a party cheese tray. This young man knew an amazing amount about the making of cheese and that was the seed of an interesting science lesson.

Most of my students know cheddar and those tasteless slices of American cheese that we often put on sandwiches. Few have eaten much cheese beyond that. My amazing parents and a great lady form the Dairy Council brought in a wide variety of cheeses to help educate my students to the world of this amazing food.

OK, I will admit that the room did have a bit of a funny smell as some of the cheeses have a pretty pungent odor (more science there folks). I will also admit that many of my students found anything beyond mozzarella and cheddar a bit too “cheesy” flavored. After a tasting lesson from the local grocery store nutritionist the students did select a few more that might make it into their list of edible.

If there is a cheese plant in your area it is best to get your students there for a field trip. Understanding the process can be done using videos and online resources but seeing the gleaming stainless tanks and watching how carefully the plant monitors temperature and cleanliness has a huge impact. Still, these sites show you the process in living color.
http://www.eatwisconsincheese.com/wisconsin/how_cheese_is_made.aspx
http://www.metacafe.com/watch/263363/how_its_made_cheese/

The curds form from an enzyme action using rennet. By the pint where the students understand this they see that cheese is made from curdles milk. There is always a little squirming but here is a chance to explain the process and some biology of enzymes. We have enzymes helping us digest our food right now. These amazing materials speed up chemical reactions and when students see the curd formation as just speeded up chemical reactions the “icky” factor seems to disappear.

Milk is a complex mixture. There is a great deal of health related science in the discussion of lactose intolerance. Each one of my students had a story related to milk. The National Dairy Council has a host of free materials for helping teach the science of nutrition. They were helpful as were the nutritionist from the local grocery store.
http://www.nationaldairycouncil.org/educationmaterials/Pages/EducationMaterialsHome.aspx

If you teach in a rural area you may find some of your students are much more knowledgeable than any of your online resources. One of my student’s families is making cheese from goats milk. This protein rich substance was a huge hit in the classroom tasting. More importantly it connected the student’s perception of food to the farm from where the products come. That was a visual of a food chain that helped lots of students make sense of food costs, and how energy is transferred through the process.
I do think exposing my students to a variety of new foods is a good thing. I do make sure I have parent permission from each of my parents and I make sure they give me any information, in writing, on any food allergies their child has. It helps to have some of the parents there on the day of the tasting and the nurse, another cheese lover, usually shows up for me. So, a little spoiled milk and we have a connection to food chains, enzymes and one of my favorite foods.

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