Cooking Classes Help Kids Learn Science Skills

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Close to 20 children are willingly gathered around tables, concentrating hard to answer questions, figure out problems, and fill out worksheets, despite the fact that it’s after school hours. They aren’t in trouble, they aren’t being punished, and there are smiles on all of the kids’ faces. What’s the catch? Food.

A partnership between UTEP and the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso (HACEP) has families working together to strengthen culinary skills while also becoming more adept at literacy and science.Lucía Durá (center) and William Medina-Jerez (far right) help children follow the recipe process during their cooking class. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceLucía Durá (center) and William Medina-Jerez (far right) help children follow the recipe process during their cooking class. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Throughout the semester, Assistant Professor of English Lucía Durá, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Education William Medina-Jerez, Ph.D., have conducted six Cooking for Literacy and Science classes at the Housing Authority’s “La Escuelita” after-school program, located at the John C. Cramer housing complex. Six follow-up lessons have taken place on the UTEP campus.

Medina-Jerez originated the idea for the program after hearing about La Escuelita from HACEP employees Maria Flores and Virginia Hill. All three are members of an interdisciplinary research group working on the UTEP campus. Seeking a more innovative after-school enrichment project for children living in housing authority sites, the HACEP employees asked Medina-Jerez for ideas. He applied for a small grant from UTEP’s College of Education and asked his colleague Durá to join him in conducting a pilot program.

“She is the literacy expert in our team; she also has experience in working with children, particularly in projects that involve cooking activities,” Medina-Jerez said. Graduate student Valente Sáenz had worked with Medina-Jerez with an art and science project he had implemented during summer class, while Medina-Jerez serves as a member of Sáenz’s master’s committee. The three agreed to teach a class that would focus on improving literacy and scientific skills through food and cooking-based activities.

Each HACEP housing community has their own La Escuelita, or learning classroom, led by a teacher from the school district in which the community resides. Students from the housing community are invited to attend La Escuelita for tutoring in different subjects as well as a quiet, structured environment in which to complete homework or study. La Escuelita at the Cramer complex works with 18 students spanning grades K-6. Parents and older students from local high schools volunteer on a regular basis. At the Cramer location, everyone — from the smallest child to a seasoned teacher — is excited when it’s time for another cooking class.

“It’s wonderful that they’re eager to participate,” said Hill, resident relations specialist for HACEP. “I’m amazed that they are so excited to be on campus, to learn and remember things, and to show us that they remember.”

The project contributes to the multidisciplinary research agenda started in fall 2011 by members of different colleges and departments on campus as well as HACEP employees. The group’s overall initiative is to improve community living standards, which the cooking program aims to do by increasing and improving educational offerings for underserved students, documenting local response to interventions, and expanding opportunities for UTEP pre-service teacher training.

Medina-Jerez’s students have provided enrichment instruction to La Escuelita students. Housing Authority employees regularly attend the classes to learn how innovative new programs can work to further quality of life for residents. Plus, there’s always the chance for something delicious to taste.

Although the program is a start-up that will end in mid-December, Medina-Jerez hopes that it will expand, especially given the success that UTEP has had in partnering with the Housing Authority on numerous other education and research projects.

“We would like to integrate the arts into this literacy project, and perhaps take it to other HACEP communities,” Medina-Jerez said. “We have also been documenting what works and lessons learned to build on this pilot and strengthen future iterations.”

Part of the excitement of offering a pilot program is that Medina-Jerez, Durá and the other coordinators can test out new ideas and activities as they come, tweaking each in response to the children’s work, questions, levels of interest and needs. Whatever form the lessons take, though, they are centered on the goal of having students use written and oral language skills and apply scientific concepts within the context of handling and making food.

“For one of the classes, each child brought a vegetable from home and we made a big pot of soup,” Durá said. “The first session, they created their own favorite meal and it was a lot of pizza, French fries, that sort of thing. We’re trying to get them to look at different colors and put some new ideas in front of them, but a lot of it is also heritage based so they feel some connection.

“Today, we’re talking about food that’s wrapped and how they can reach into the refrigerator and make their own wrapped thing rather than having to wait for something to be cooked. It’s about the process, too – the tortilla is the foundation, the beans are the glue, the vegetables give it structure, and so on. The idea is that literacy and science are embedded in the workshop. With the soup, we talked about how the composition of a vegetable changes when it’s cooked versus when it’s raw. The lesson prior to that, we made meringue, so there was experimenting with the changing of states. The recipes get us into process, technical communication and reading comprehension.”

Gracie Borjas, coordinator and teacher at La Escuelita, reinforces each lesson in the days following the class, helping them retain what they’ve learned with the use of flash cards, a special library of books purchased by the project to teach about healthy eating and cultural traditions, portion size identification, and other after-school exercises. At the end of the semester, each child will be presented with a copy of a cookbook produced through the program, containing recipes that kids can make on their own, recipes from their families, and recipes that were completed during the project term.

“For me there has to be the connection between the reading, the writing and the real world,” Borjas said. “For them, it is the cooking, because sometimes what they go home to isn’t a fully-cooked meal. So if they get the connection between whatever reading and writing they’re doing here and an end goal of food or cooking at home, that’s very important.”

 “I love the way that this is developed,” Hill said. “To see the kids so engaged by something so different and to learn from university professors who are on the cutting edge of education is very exciting. It’s definitely making a difference.”