A team of Case Western Reserve University students is pushing Jell-O as brain food—to teach middle schoolers about engineering.
For their efforts, the team won the Biomaterials Education Challenge and $2,500 prize at the Society of Biomaterials’ national meeting in April.
Jell-O may be the nation’s best-known biomaterial. The food is classified as a hydrogel, and collagen, a protein found in the body, gives it the shakable structure.
Plastic surgeons use collagen to puff up movie stars’ lips. But, as photos of aging actors’ sagging smiles attest, collagen doesn’t hold up forever. And that’s part of what makes it a good material to teach young students, said team member Julia Samorezov, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering.
“Civil and mechanical engineering are usually what’s taught in elementary and middle schools,” Samorezov said. “This is another way to introduce engineering. Biomaterials use the same engineering principles.”
“And they get to eat it afterward,” added Christa Modery-Pawlowski. She and Amy Wen, also PhD candidates in biomedical engineering, and fourth-year undergraduate student Sarah Gleeson, a biomedical engineering major, round out the team.
The collegians’ field-tested lesson plan calls for eighth-graders to apply the scientific method as they experiment with the dessert.
The younger students are provided with samples of two Jell-Os, one containing more collagen than the other. Each student writes a hypothesis about which sample will hold more weight before collapsing. In a second experiment, students predict whether the addition of water or a solution of water and meat tenderizer will degrade Jell-O faster. The tenderizer includes an enzyme that breaks down proteins.
The younger students then did the experiments, collected and analyzed the resulting data and drew conclusions.
“They could relate what they saw to engineering principles of mechanical failure and biodegradation,” Modery-Pawlowski said. In discussions, the eighth-graders related the principles and Jell-O’s properties to contact lenses, sutures, prosthetics, breast implants and other familiar items, many offered up by the young students.
The college students tested their lesson with three classes at Monticello Middle School in Cleveland Heights, and a class at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, receiving accolades and some suggestions from pupils and teachers.
The team presented its plan and feedback to judges at the Biomaterials Society meeting. The education challenge seeks a lesson that’s age-appropriate, affordable and lasts one class period. The materials—Jell-O, meat tenderizer, a set of home science weights, paper plates and clear plastic cups—cost $20.
With their winnings, the team plans to fund the lesson at more area middle schools and host a regional conference for the Society of Biomaterials chapter here.