The Chemical Kitchen: where students swap lab coats for aprons and gain practical skills

Professor Alan SpiveyIt began as an off-the-cuff remark. My colleague (and Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science) Roger Kneebone and I were discussing our chemistry students and their lack of hands-on experience. Finding students who are academically able and also good practically is hard. But we noted that those in other fields, chefs, for example, spend hours teaching practical techniques to their apprentices. This was a moment of insight that resulted in the Chemical Kitchen.

Our project introduces students to the mindset and fundamental skills needed in a laboratory setting through the non-threatening parallel of cooking. Just as a chef will prep ingredients in advance, line up utensils and keep a clear workspace – the process of mise en place, or ‘everything in its place’ – chemists must prepare for complex experiments and schedules: taking a solution out of a fridge ten minutes before it’s required, and so on. Rather than a gimmick, it’s an effective way for students to learn professionalism, safety and accuracy. We’re teaching them why processes matter in practice, not just in theory.

Our students are more used to competing against each other than working together. In a lab, no-one wants to look stupid when faced with unfamiliar equipment and procedures, but put them in a kitchen and their inhibitions disappear amid the fun – and mistakes don’t matter. If a yolk turns out as tough as a bullet, you just chuck it away and try again. We teach them to cook as a team and, as chemists, they become pretty good at it.

Students wear aprons rather than lab coats, the funnels and scales are slightly cheaper, and there are stainless steel work surfaces in the bespoke space we have created. But the skills and discipline are the same. Three intensive days in the ‘kitchen’ stretches their accuracy – half a degree of temperature difference or a matter of seconds can be make or break for that yolk. By documenting their work with photos, video and data, they learn to take lab notes – and then they learn reproducibility, how to measure, observe, record, calculate yields and use apparatus, as well as a little basic chemistry.

Students flourish – there’ll be weird colours and flavours but creativity shines through and nothing is ‘wrong’"

Students flourish on their final assignment, which is a plated, nouvelle-cuisine style display. There’ll be weird colours and flavours, ‘glitterball’ suspended sugar crystals created by spherification, or ‘lighter than air’ foam garnishes. Creativity shines through – no two plates are the same – and nothing is ‘wrong’. All observations in any lab are valid. After all, it was only by noticing a mould had checked the growth of Staphylococci in his petri dish that Dr Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. But, of course, there’s one big difference – students can pretty much consume anything they prepare in the kitchen, from tofu cheese to xanthan gum garnishes.

This will be the third year we have offered the Chemical Kitchen as a core course for first-year undergraduates, and so now we have results for our own experiment. Participating chemists say they feel far better prepared to embark upon ‘proper’ lab work. In the pipeline are further kitchen courses tailored to meet the hands-on skills required of engineering and medical students.

We very much hope that the focus on practical doing will help students set aside an emphasis on classical science and think about more practical delivery. And, hopefully, have some fun along the way.

Professor Alan Spivey is Professor of Synthetic Chemistry, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Department of Chemistry