STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Ten-year-old Emily Switala wants to be a chemist when she grows up.
Her interest was sparked after her fourth-grade class at Philipsburg Elementary School used its school lab for science projects that tested food for proteins, fats and starches.
"Ever since we started this, it's been really fun," she said. "We use a solution to test things in the lab and if it tests positive, it usually turns a different color."
Switala was one of about 40 fourth-graders who were part of a field trip Wednesday morning to Penn State's food science department, where they learned about food safety, where food comes from and how it's processed, and were able to make and test different cheeses with doctoral students.
"A lot of kids think all food just comes from the grocery store," said Catherine Cutter, professor of food microbiology. "We're here to show them the entire food process and integrate this kind of science in their curriculum."
Cutter and her graduate students conducted a cheese activity where students made cheddar and cottage cheese, and performed sensory experiments with the cottage cheese in addition to getting a tour of the Berkey Creamery.
Graduate student Josh Scheinberg, who orchestrated lessons for a class of 20 elementary school students on food microbiology, said one of the more important things he taught the kids involved safety and nutrition.
"We want to teach kids at a young age how to keep food safe," Scheinberg said. "They hear the term 'food poisoning' and it will be our job to show them how to prevent something like that. Plus, it's putting kids on a good nutritional path when they learn what the nutrition facts on the back of food packages mean."
Penn State teamed up with Philipsburg-Osceola and Harrisburg school districts. A grant from the physics department allowed nine fellows to pair up with fourth- through eighth-graders to help enrich science education through the CarbonEarth Program.
Andrea Giordano, a chemistry graduate student and part of the CarbonEarth Program, has worked with two fourth-grade classes at Philipsburg throughout the year. She has helped teach them the importance of where their food originates.
"We did a food chemistry unit with them and the response was great," Giordano said. "It's teaching them to understand the information on the back of the labels. They don't know it fully, but they're getting a better understanding."
Fourth-grade teacher Cindy Warming said her students are at a pivotal age where they absorb the information they're given, which can lead to healthier lifestyles at a time when childhood obesity is an issue.
"This program allows them to be completely hands-on and they're honing their observational skills during these field tests," Warming said.
And by the end of the field trip, the students agreed that while it was fun making cheeses and learning the food process, taste-testing the results was the best part of the experience.