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STEM Education and the Science of Coffee

September 15, 2016
By Jarrod Whaley

As we in the States look to improve the quality of STEM education in our schools and universities, one of the precepts which arises time and again is the idea that students are far more likely to become interested in STEM topics when a practical application of those topics is presented. Students learn to hate math—to provide the classic example—because it is often presented to them as a bunch of abstract formulae which don't appear to apply to the real world. When math topics are explored in the context of a genuinely interesting problem space, students find themselves engrossed in the activity at hand, and then eventually discover to their great surprise that they were doing math.

Two professors at UC Davis have devised an extremely clever trick to get their students engaged in the chemical engineering program at that school: they have the students make coffee. Dan Charles explains for NPR:

William Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl, two engineering professors at the University of California, Davis, started discussing ways to give young undergraduates a hands-on introduction to their new discipline. Engineering programs are creating such experiences in order to fight attrition; too many of these so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students have been dropping out after a steady diet of mathematics in the first years of college.

Kuhl "had the idea of taking apart a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker" to study how the designers solved the small-scale engineering challenge of brewing coffee," says Ristenpart. As they talked, it dawned on Ristenpart that every aspect of coffee-making matched a major topic in the chemical engineering curriculum.

This, we feel, is an ideal way to introduce STEM topics to students. Naming a theorem and writing on a chalkboard are methods better left to later on, after students have been shown why all those scribbles on the chalkboard are interesting after all.