Now We’re Cooking with STEM

“Why does popcorn pop?” and other food-related topics help students engage with math and science

Bradley Morris, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator of Educational Psychology in Kent State’s School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences. He is also co-director of the university’s Science of Learning Education (SOLE) Center.

Bradley Morris Food for Thought presentation R&I Forum Spring 2023


At his recent presentation at a Research and Innovation Forum, sponsored by SOLE and the Division of Research and Sponsored Programs (RASP), he said “The first question I get is ‘why would NSF (National Science Foundation) give you money to pop popcorn with kids?’”

The leaky pipeline

To answer the question, Morris references what educators call “the leaky STEM pipeline.” STEM refers to education and careers in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. The “leaky pipeline” refers to the idea that very young children enter school with great interest in scientific discovery and math, but that interest declines over the course of their academic experience. The result being that only a small percentage of students will continue STEM studies and pursue STEM careers. Morris wanted to find a way to stop those leaks in the pipeline by leveraging that early interest in science and keep it going.

Feeding sustained interest in STEM

Morris observed that students spend 80% of their lives outside of school, but they are still learning during that time. “But” he said, “teachers will tell you; students are learning all the time and what they’re learning isn’t always great. They come in with profound misconceptions about things like science and math.”

Student with goggles learning STEM food preparation.


The “Food For Thought” project targets early experiences by leveraging an activity that’s part of children’s everyday lives: preparing food.  He said “Cooking is a rich context for science and math learning. Cooking is also an authentic, culturally rich context for families to engage in conversations about STEM.”

Students learning STEM through food preparation.


A video presentation about the project can be found in the 2021 Stem For All Video Showcase.  

“A lot of kids have this misconception that STEM is something that happens in the classroom or the laboratory, but it’s going on all around us,” Morris said.

“We can make very meaningful STEM connections all the time.”

It started with popcorn

One of Morris’ early research activities was an informal science activity conducted in classrooms with students in the third, fourth and fifth grades. Educators brought two pots for popping with different types of popcorn and cooking oils. They had magnetic boards with icons to record experiment conditions and variables. From the success of these interactive demonstrations in schools came the next evolution of the project: engaging students and their parents at home.

Popcorn-making experiment in a classroom.


As part of a food drive in Cincinnati, the project put together an at-home experiment that families could conduct by popping popcorn. The packaging came with a QR code that gave the families different instructions. One group of families received a recipe with general prompts about having discussion and asking questions. The other group received the recipe along with specific questions to ask in their discussions while preparing the popcorn. The researchers asked the participating families to record their conversations while they popped the corn.

The study found no difference in the task-related talk during the experiment. But in the families that received the question prompts, “just including those prompts in the recipe led to much more use of STEM-related words, like cause-and-effect words, many more explanations to each other, and lots of follow-up questions,” Morris said. “So, just asking the questions didn’t stop there. They used more terms; they had more exchanges and there were more exchanges that were related to science talk.”

Expanding the experimental menu

Some of Morris’ partners on the project have engaged students in similar classroom learning experiences, making eggplant pizzas and discovering egg science, by making French toast.

Food For Thought demonstration of making French toast.


Going forward, Morris said, “We’re going to do more food science camps this summer. We have new experiments rolling out in terms of light intervention and ongoing community activities.

“But the goals again, are to try to expand the notion of what’s legitimate STEM inquiry in kids as they start to see that there’s science in food.”

Partners on the project include Kent State University, the Cincinnati Museum Center, La Soupe (a food repurposing organization), the Center for Science and Industry (COSI), the Center for Getting Things Started, The Food Basket and National Science Foundation Advanced Informal STEM Learning (NSF AISL).

Research and innovation

Morris presented his research at a recent Research and Innovation Forum sponsored by Kent State’s SOLE Center and Research and Sponsored Programs (RASP). RASP sponsors two Research and Innovation forums each year.

Kent State has earned the prestigious R1 designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. R1 status is the highest recognition that doctoral universities can receive, and Kent State is one of only five universities in Ohio to have earned it. This designation recognizes the high level of research activity on Kent State’s campuses.

POSTED: Sunday, February 19, 2023 05:45 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 14, 2023 05:32 PM
Phil B. Soencksen