WCSU students experience the botany of everyday life
From bread making to coffee roasting, biology course promotes hands-on learning
DANBURY, CONN. — From kneading bread dough and creating chewing gum to transforming raw coffee beans into a dark roast ready for brewing, students at Western Connecticut State University are learning that botany is a hands-on subject that can be experienced throughout everyday life.
Dr. C. Thomas Philbrick, Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor and professor of biological and environmental sciences at WCSU, shares his passion for the origins, cultivation and myriad uses of plant life as instructor for Plants and Society, a biology course tailored to introduce students from any academic major to botany. If some students enroll in part to meet their general education requirement for natural science laboratory credit, they will complete the course with a newfound appreciation for the plant world around them.
“It’s the most enjoyable course I teach because it introduces plants and the human uses of plants to students who already have been introduced to them, but may not know it,” Philbrick said. “This course takes everyday experiences and translates them into a scientific context that’s relevant to their lives.”
Far from introducing botany as a textbook lesson that can be taught solely through classroom lectures, Philbrick invites his students to get their hands covered with flour, sticky with tree sap and scented with a hint of licorice as they learn to turn products derived from plant life around the globe into common foods and beverages.
During a recent lab exercise in the fall semester course, students combined, heated and worked various ingredients with plant origins including molasses, sugar, licorice root and star of anise to create licorice sticks. A similarly demanding task required students to heat, flavor and roll out long strips of chicle, a natural gum base harvested from trees in Central America and Mexico, to be cut into homemade chewing gum.
The bread-making exercise offered students the opportunity to compare breads created from different dough mixtures using white, spelt, rye, oat or barley flour, measuring the amount that each type of kneaded dough rises during its rest before baking. An additional experiment to remove starch from a separate sample held under cold water, leaving only gluten protein in the remaining dough balls, allowed students to study how higher gluten levels affect bread rising. “When they graphed the measurements, we found that the more gluten was present in the dough, the higher the bread rose,” Philbrick observed.
The need for additional space to conduct some lab exercises at times has sent students into the hallways of the Science Building, or even outdoors when students tackled the especially redolent assignment of roasting raw coffee beans from Redding Roasters in Bethel. Using two kinds of vintage popcorn makers — one variety that generates its own heated air, and a “Whirley Pop” lidded pot with crank placed on a portable gas burner — students learned how professionals produce different coffee varieties through careful control of roasting time and temperature.
“When you roast coffee, you do it by the color of the beans and by the sound of the two distinct ‘cracks’ of the beans during roasting,” Philbrick explained. “The timing of the cracks and how long they last depend on the temperature, so if you can control the temperature, you can control the roast.”
Following a practice run, each student attempted several roasts of varying durations, which were allowed to air out to release excess carbon dioxide overnight before a few containers of beans were ground, brewed and sampled. Philbrick wryly admitted that some samples failed the tasting test, “but I believe the students got a great deal out of this exercise!”
Each lab exercise is rooted in the fundamental line of inquiry for all subjects covered in the class, he noted.
“Our aim is to critique where each of these plants comes from, what part of it we use, why we use it, and where and how the plant is grown today.” During the class segment devoted to the apple, he said, students learn about different varieties through blind tastings and prepare apple jelly, sauce and cider. At the same time, they discover that the apple has been traced to origins in central Asia, and that apple trees were first planted widely in the United States not to consume their fruit but to make hard cider.
“One theme of our class is the movement of plants around the world by humans,” Philbrick said. “Of all the plants cultivated for food in Connecticut today, none are native to this state, and the majority are not native to our country.” Other topics addressed in the course include the social and economic contexts of trading in plant commodities.
One of the most important lessons that students take away from Plants and Society is an enhanced awareness and understanding of the plants that make up so much of the food they consume every day, Philbrick said. “Students who go through this course will not look at these foods the same way anymore.”
For more information, call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.