Calorie Coefficients: STEM Food Fun!

calories graphic.jpg

Teachers I work with often ask me about ideas for STEM lessons and activities.  My edtip?  Food!

As it turns out, food is a good source of educational content as well as nutritional content!  Specifically, a study of the calorie can yield some amazing STEM lessons, activities, and thought-provoking questions and discussions among your students.  Let's start with a definition:

By definition a calorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. The important word to take away from this definition is ENERGY. Calories are ENERGY that fuels our bodies; much like gasoline fuels our cars. Without sufficient calories our heart would not beat, our lungs would not function, and our brain would not work.

The definition alone yields some wonderful science and math questions, but when you add to that the practical "maker" question, "How do you measure calories in food?", you strike STEM gold!  Teachers have reported such wonderful classroom discussions when they begin a food-focused STEM lesson with the inquiry, "How do scientists figure out how many calories are in your Big Mac?"  Just approaching how to tackle this question is a wonderful way to practice the scientific method along with a myriad of biology topics.

Students are usually highly motivated to answer question like this (since most of them have probably not given it much thought before) and almost naturally turn to technology in researching the answer.  Students are completely fascinated to learn that scientists light food on fire to figure out its caloric worth.  Building a model bomb calorimeter, the device used when burning food to determine caloric energy, can be an amazing engineering task.

calorie coefficients.gif

Then, there's math involved, with each type of nutrient -carbohydrates, fat, and proteins - corresponding to a specific coefficient that determines how many calories it contributes to the food item. The calorie coefficients are shown in this graphic to the right:

In addition to the research aspect, technology is easy to incorporate into lessons of this type as there are YouTube videos,animations, and simulations that are engaging and just plain cool.  Try your hand here at burning different foods in a virtual bomb calorimeter. More are listed in the references section below.

bomb calorimeter tomato.tiff

Shown here are the calculations after putting a tomato into the virtual bomb calorimeter.  Notice that the definition of the term calorie is used directly in the derivation of the formula to calculate the number of calories in the tomato.

Contact me if you'd like to schedule a STEM workshop for your school.  As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts: email me.


Squishy Science of Counting Calories article

Calories graphic created by me from images found in a Google search

Calorie definition came from here

Graphic for calorie coefficients came from here

Chapter 48 of a Biology textbook on Digestion, featuring an interactive bomb calorimeter

Details on how to build your own bomb calorimeter

YouTube video showing how to use a bomb calorimeter

Textbook: Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations.


The Solver Blog

Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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