UC Davis lures students to engineering with unusual draw: coffee

UC Davis is luring more students into engineering classes with a substance that has nearly universal appeal to undergraduates: coffee.

Two new laboratory classes offered through the school’s College of Engineering focus on the science – from raw bean to aromatic brew – of making the optimal cup of coffee.

The first coffee lab was offered in the spring quarter of 2013, as a pilot class. It enrolled 18 students, said Tonya Kuhl, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis.

Currently, as part of this year’s 2014 winter quarter, the department offered its “Design of Coffee” as a general education class open to all students. The class quickly achieved full enrollment of 300 students, with a waiting list. A second course, aimed at those majoring in chemical engineering and materials science, enrolled 170 students.

Students begin by dismantling a coffeemaker to see how it works. Next come experiments with different techniques in roasting and brewing to define the chemical and physical processes involved in each.

The course will end with a tasting competition. The winner will be the student who makes the best-tasting cup of coffee from the same basic ingredients –while using the least amount of energy, said Kuhl.

The idea for the classes came to her and a fellow Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science professor, William Ristenpart, last year. They initially talked about it in the hallway between classes. Fittingly, both Ristenpart and Kuhl were drinking cups of coffee at the time.

They’re is trying to boost interest in the chemical engineering major at Davis. Their concern is that many students who start out in the chemical engineering major wind up transitioning out of it.

“As regards the chemical engineering major, of those who start freshman year but then switch majors, the vast majority switch majors at the end of freshman year,” Ristenpart said.

Some students switch because they find the material too challenging. More worrisome, to Ristenpart, are the students who excel at the classes, but transfer to another major because they don't find the engineering curriculum interesting.

The U.S. has lagged in the number of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Between 2000 and 2008, for example, a total of 577,723 students in the U.S. opted for an undergraduate engineering degree, while in China 3.9 million did so, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

“A key challenge we face is that many students have only a very vague idea of what engineers actually do, so they have a difficult time envisioning themselves as an engineer,” Ristenpart said. “For example, there are TV shows about lawyers, doctors, forensic scientists and stockbrokers, but not many TV shows depict engineers in action.”

Ristenpart said that offering the coffee lab was also spurred by National Science Foundation findings that backed the idea that offering a meaningful engineering design project to freshmen is a tool for getting young students excited about engineering.

“Traditionally our chemical engineering department has not taught any freshman-level lab experiences,” he said. “It’s difficult to do a full and meaningful experiment with freshmen because they have not had a lot of training or scientific expertise developed yet.”

“The nice thing about this is that you can map the entire chemical engineering curriculum onto the process of roasting and brewing coffee,” said Ristenpart. “It give us many, many opportunities to highlight, at the freshman level, the type of issues that chemical engineers think about, but in a way that is really approachable.”

The class has attracted plenty of interest from students who already have lab experience –like 21-year-old neurobiology major Arlo Lobascio.

“I used to work as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in downtown San Francisco, so coffee is a big interest of mine,” Lobascio said.

As a barista, he found coffee making was more of an art. In the coffee design class, it’s a science.

“We’re actually going through the process of roasting coffee beans, looking at dissolved particles within coffee, and looking at different temperatures and different brewing times,” Lobascio said. “We’re seeing the numerical data to back it up.”

The experience has sharpened his data analysis skills – and honed his brewing skills at home, Lobascio said.

For 18-year-old freshman Karen Sanchez, the class offers an intimate encounter with coffee – for the first time. Sanchez was so new to the coffee-making game that she didn’t know coffee beans start out green. The class has also turned her into a coffee drinker.

“I didn’t realize there was an engineering approach to coffee, so when I saw signs around campus advertising the class, it spiked my interest,” said Sanchez, who is majoring in biology.

“It’s a complicated matter –what goes into making coffee– but they’ve simplified it in this class,” she said.

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