“Now, let’s get down to some serious learning,” a well-intentioned phrase heard in countless classrooms every day. It is based on one of the most pervasive beliefs in education which is that true learning and retention can only happen in a serious environment with serious students and serious teachers. Recent education and psychological research, however, is indicating that the human brain learns well, perhaps even better, in a state of joy. When coupled with content, research shows that laughter can lead to learning, excitement can lead to learning, and low stress can lead to learning.
Even so, developing strategies for content-based joy in the classroom can be challenging. We suggest culinary arts integration as a project-based learning strategy which naturally builds content-based joy. In fact, one could argue that few things in life create more joy than food; in the words of the old Irish proverb, “Laughter is brightest in the place where food is.”
Cross-curricular opportunities abound with culinary arts integration. As with most project-based learning, these strategies blend particularly well with language arts standards such as persuasive writing and speech. Incidentally, in our own classes, we’ve found audience engagement during these speeches to be particularly high because students are so excited about the food.
The following are a few examples of cross-curricular, culinary arts integrated activities:
Aquaponics: Physics, chemistry, biology, economics, geography
In this ultimate STEM activity, students begin by researching the difficulties of growing food in some climates or locations. Using aquaponics systems as a solution, students can engineer a system and grow food at their school. The food could be donated to a local homeless shelter or the school cafeteria. At the end of the unit, using the vegetables and fish from the lab, students can have a feast of salad, fish tacos, pesto, and salsa. This is an excellent alternative for schools interested in a school garden but without the appropriate land, climate or resources.
Food storage experiments: Chemistry, economics, geography, language arts
In this activity, students consider how different cultures have historically stored their food and how that has affected their meal choices. Which foods must be kept at certain temperatures and why? Which foods freeze well and why? Students make and present a dish representing a particular geographic location or culture.
Food in art: History, art, language arts
Based on the MET’s Culinary Art Tours, students research the food portrayed in famous paintings. These food items often have economic, historical or symbolic meanings. Student research, writing and presentation are easily incorporated, with the added option of bringing a food item from a painting to share with the class.
Historical restaurant menus: Economics, history, language arts
Historical menus are fascinating; they concisely represent the history, culture and economics of a region. Many libraries such as the Los Angeles Public Library and the New York Public Library, have collections of historical menus which students can easily study online. Students could then present a talk on a chosen menu’s history and economics along with preparing a menu item for the class.
Food in every country: Economics, geography, history, language arts
In this activity, students research cultural, economic, historical and geographic influences of countries and make a representative dish to present and share with their classmates. Food by Country is an excellent resource for learning about the food of many countries.
Nutrition talks: Health, biology, nutrition, language arts
After researching popular diet variations such as vegan, raw, or paleo diets, students present a food demo of a representative dish, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of that diet. Alternatively, students could research medically necessary diets such as those for celiac disease or diabetes, and present a sample dish discussing the science behind those dietary restrictions.
Historical measurements and tools: History, math, physics, language arts
Students research units of food measurement and their historical roots to explain why these units differ around the world. Students could convert the measurements from an old recipe into modern measurements and then prepare the dish to test their conversions. Additionally, students may also research a vintage kitchen tool, such as those in Cook’s Illustrated, presenting the physics of that tool’s design and its modern counterpart.
Class or culture: History, geography, language arts
Historically, a person’s class level largely determined the foods they ate and their methods of preparations. Culture, however, is another significant influence on food choice. Using a random selection of dishes from around the world and different time periods, students research to determine whether the dish was primarily influenced by class or culture.
In our experience, nothing brings happiness to a classroom quite like food. Culinary arts integration is a naturally joyful way to strengthen content retention. For more ideas on all types of arts integration, check out Education Closet and The Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge.
Sarah Henderson is a high-school English teacher at Loma Linda Academy, SMARTBrief award-winning author, and recent neuro-education graduate, Sarah Henderson, combines recent research from the cognitive sciences with nearly 20 years of teaching experience to offer practical insights into how the brain learns. Recent publications include Edutopia articles on humor in the classroom and culinary arts integration. Her current research involves the advantages of arts integration for struggling students. For more, see www.sarahahenderson.com.
Lori Holm has taught students from preschool through college and loves learning at any age (hers and theirs)! She currently teaches culinary arts and religion courses at Loma Linda Academy in Southern California. Previous positions include resource coordinator and peer leadership coordinator. Recent contributions include articles and webinars on culinary arts integration for Education Closet and Edutopia. She is passionate about food, cooking and encouraging others to use food as a learning and relationship-building tool.
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