A Tasty Assignment

Professor Steve, Madeline, and Taylor
November 26, 2018

UMD students have a new, delicious resource for learning chemical engineering concepts - a lab dedicated to creating chocolate.

When Lab Coordinator Lyndon Ramrattan brought a bag of cocoa beans from Trinidad to Associate Professor Steve Sternberg, he had no idea it would turn into something much bigger. Steve had been looking for a way to demonstrate chemical engineering concepts with a real-world example and this fit. Steve says, “I looked at the process of making chocolate and it’s a chemical engineering process. It’s exactly what we teach our students to do.”

Taylor weighing cocoa beans

Lab researcher, Taylor Hebner weighing the cocoa beans.

The chocolate lab is an ongoing curriculum-based project open to all students, however it is mainly for freshmen and sophomores. Steve explains that by breaking up the chocolate making process into easily defined steps they can relate it to chemical engineering processes and better illustrate complex concepts. Creating chocolate involves:

  • Roasting the beans
  • Grinding the beans
  • Winnowing- separating cocoa nibs from shells
  • Refining and conching
  • Tempering
  • Blending additives like spices, flavors, marshmallows, nuts, and seeds
  • Molding

Student opportunities

Graduate student Madeleine Ogren has been helping in the lab and says, “It’s really piqued my interest as far as research goes.” Madeleine has had research experiences with other types of chemical engineering, but this particular lab gets her more involved with people, which she really likes. She says freshmen express great interest and recalls seeing “light bulb moments” when they see a chemical engineering process come to life before their eyes.

UMD senior and fellow lab researcher Tayler Hebner agrees. “When you are a freshman, you don’t really know what chemical engineering is,” says Tayler. “This is a way to explain to them that there’s a process and all these different steps are related to chemical engineering in many different ways. So, this is how you might work on the process as an engineer.”

Both students say the lab is helpful for incoming students because it sets them up on a path they understand and that will help prepare them for future classes and a career.

Tayler says, “It's simple. Rather than learning about weird gasses that you’ve never heard of, we have cocoa beans and we’re making them into chocolate.”

Future opportunities

Steve and Lyndon say they would love to expand their lab in the future so students have an actual kitchen to use for research, too.

Chocolate lab

Conching evenly distributes cocoa butter within chocolate, and promotes the development of flavor by creating friction that releases acids and promotes oxidation.

They are also planning a study abroad trip to Trinidad for the spring 2020 term. During which, students will be able to visit the chocolate farms and see where the cocoa beans come from and learn how they are harvested.

Lyndon and Steve both emphasize that this is a great example of how seemingly simple things like chocolate can be a great teaching tool. This whole project started when Steve asked Lyndon about the cocoa tea he drinks. “A simple cup of cocoa tea every morning has created something much bigger,” says Lyndon, “and now we are asking ourselves every morning how can we make it more beneficial for UMD and for the farmers we’re buying from? How is it going to be beneficial to travel to Trinidad? We’re excited to share this information in Trinidad, too, and see where things go from there."

Top Photo: Steve Sternberg (left) Tayler Hebner (middle) and Madeleine Ogren (right) are separating the cocoa bean nibs from the hard outer shells.