Food, bugs lead to ECU lessons in math and science

Pitt County middle schoolers enjoyed hands-on math and science experience through food preparation and gardening at ECU’s FoodMASTER camp in June. Participating campers include, left to right, Casandra Watson and Jakiriah Suggs (standing) and Kenny Bland and Brenkya Adams (seated). (Contributed photo)

Twenty-eight middle school students from the Pitt County Boys and Girls Clubs took lessons on fractions, pizza and lady bugs this summer at East Carolina University.

The hands-on math and science lessons were delivered through cooking and gardening experiences in ECU’s FoodMASTER Summer Science Camp, led by ECU faculty members Jacqueline De Chabert-Rios, visiting assistant professor of hospitality management, and David Rivera, Jr., associate professor of hospitality management.

The students cooked their own meals in the ECU Golden Corral Culinary Center on campus and gathered fresh produce from the center’s culinary garden. Joseph Bassett, a local gardener and member of the Greenville Community Garden Network, presented lessons on organic gardening and gardening pests. The students gathered tips such as how good bugs like lady bugs eat harmful bugs like aphids.

“We learned that you should never eat raw eggs,” said camper Kenny Bland, “because the eggs may have bacteria that can make you sick. And we learned how to read food labels and that cereal should not be called whole grain unless ‘whole grain’ is the first ingredient on the label.”

Camper Casandra Watson said she learned that she should be eating more whole grains. “When grains go to a factory, the healthiest part of the grain is thrown away sometime, and we don’t get to eat that part. Whole grains can make you healthier and thinner.

“I told my mom about that, and she said that the camp was making me smarter,” Watson said.

Brenkya Adams said she learned that washing hands one time is not always enough. “After I washed my hands, the teacher put a powder them. Then I put my hands under a special light where I could see all the bacteria still on my hands. That taught me how hard it is to wash off bacteria.”

Melani Duffrin, FoodMASTER director and associate professor of nutrition science at ECU, and Virginia Carraway-Stage, FoodMASTER associate director, are leading the initiative to create and test a FoodMASTER curriculum for middle graders in North Carolina. The summer science camp is part of that project.

“There’s no better way to learn math and science than through hands-on discovery,” said Duffrin. “As with any FoodMASTER project, the camp also reinforced careers in math and science. Fear of these subjects melts away when the application is direct and relevant.”

FoodMASTER Summer Science Camp partnered with A Time for Science, the nature and science learning center in southern Pitt County, and Save a Sea Turtle Foundation to offer the camp as a pilot project. Prior to FoodMASTER Camp, the children spent a week at A Time for Science learning about water quality and conservation.

FoodMASTER at ECU was awarded $1.27 million in August 2011 to help middle school students learn math and science incorporating Common Core Standards through food-based activities. The funds came from a 2011 Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes for Health. FoodMASTER also received $ 1.3 million in SEPA funds to develop, implement, and disseminate food-based curriculums and materials to third to fifth grade teachers in North Carolina and beyond.

Duffrin and Ohio elementary school teacher Sharon Phillips created FoodMASTER in 1999. Their goal was to bring science, math and nutrition concepts to life through activities using common household items such as measuring cups and spoons, cereals, flour, fruits, vegetables and milk. More details on FoodMASTER are available at