UD, teachers use food-borne illness outbreaks to teach science


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12:52 p.m., Aug. 24, 2010----With recent outbreaks involving common foods such as eggs, peanut butter, spinach, and tomatoes, University of Delaware food science experts Kali Kniel, associate professor, and Adrienne Shearer, research associate, saw a need to raise understanding about food-borne illnesses.

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Through the support of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences in UD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, they developed traditional and interactive materials that could be integrated into high school curriculums to teach students the science of this current “hot” topic.

“An estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur each year in the United States, and over the past two years media attention around food safety and nutrition has increased dramatically,” Kniel said. “Food-borne outbreak investigations lend themselves well to studying core scientific principles, while at the same time students can learn about food science and food safety.”

Nineteen middle school, high school and college-level teachers attended a conference hosted by Kniel, Shearer and Sue Snider, food and nutrition professor and Cooperative Extension specialist, to introduce the educational materials.

The teachers came from backgrounds of biology, chemistry, microbiology, family and consumer sciences, applied physical sciences and mathematics, Shearer said.

“One of the exciting outcomes of this program is its versatility,” Shearer said. “There are aspects of the program that are a perfect fit for biology and chemistry teachers, but there are also aspects that are appropriate for consumer sciences and more traditional agricultural courses.”

Materials available for the teachers include a presentation on food microbiology, outbreak investigation case studies and interactive web-based games. The web activities can be used by one player or groups of students in the classroom.

The package also includes a video that provides a behind the scenes look at the laboratory investigation of an outbreak, Kniel said.

“The video focuses in on the scientific principles that underlie the methods used to determine why and if tomatoes, for example, were responsible for the outbreak of salmonellosis,” she said. “This is a truly unique aspect of this project and has potential for use in many courses.”

At the conference, teachers posed as students and experimented with the materials in groups. Attendees were also treated to a keynote address by Capt. Thomas Hill of the U.S. Public Health Service, who currently works with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The materials will serve as a basis for a two-year project by the CANR, with funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Several teachers will incorporate the materials into their high school classrooms and provide feedback on the student response. The materials will be made available at the end of the project through the University's website, Shearer said.

“We hope the materials aid in teaching basic scientific concepts as the students gain appreciation for food safety issues and the educational path towards various careers in the field of food science,” Shearer said. “The science involved in these decisions is exciting, but the social implications of students learning about this topic are also important.”

For more information, visit the project website.