Play With Your Food

Vicki Hansen
Department of Geological Sciences, University of Minnesota Duluth
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Have groups of students build structures with a variety of (the same) food ingredients. The challenge, which group can build the highest and stronger structure. In the process of building and class evaluations of each structure, students learn a lot about strength and rheology.

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I use at the beginning of the semester in junior-level structural geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

I use this as a stand-alone class exercise; we refer back to this activity throughout the rest of the semester.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Throughout this activity the students experience strength as a concept; they consider the wide range of factors that contribute to material strength; how strength might be measured--as well as problem inherent in measuring strength. The learn to really puzzle about: what strength IS; what does 'strength' mean?

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Throughout this activity the students are formulating and testing hypotheses, in the building of their group structure, and in the destruction of each structure.

Other skills goals for this activity

This exercise develops group skills; students seem to be able to relax through this exercise and very easily work as a group; even students that otherwise are not 'group-working students'.

Description of the activity/assignment

This is an in class exercise to explore rheology and strength. I use it at the beginning of Structural Geology. Divide the students into groups of 4-5 students. Each groups is given the same assortment of food goodies, a cafeteria tray, plastic spoons or knives (utensils for spreading), and napkins or wipes.

The assignment: Build a structure on the tray. You must use some of each material. The challenge: which group can build the highest and strongest structure. During the building phase the students are ask to consider what is meant by strength, and what makes something strong. After a limited time, we evaluate the goals as a class.

Evaluating the height goal is easy. Evaluating strength is where the learning really comes in. The strength evaluation turns into an animated discussion that the students really care about, and therefore learn takes place. Ultimately each structure is 'tested' for strength. Yup, destruction! But first predictions, discussion, hypothesizing. Lots of food for thought.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The class evaluation of each groups' structure has made very clear that the students have met the goals; they take over posing questions, deciding how to define strength, designing tests, making predictions, and executing the 'tests'.

We refer back to parts of this activity throughout the semester, and through this exercise the class seems much more comfortable with asking questions through out the semester. Some say the family that eats together stays together, we find the structure class that plays with their food together, learns together.

Throughout each semester I have always had students bring forward fantastic food examples of different structural/rheological concepts. I take this a evidence that this exercise is worth the class time and effort.

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