St Peters College Auckland scooped the Home Crafted Cheese and Cheesemaker Award at last weeks annual NZSPA dinner in Hamilton last week with their SPC Blue.

Andrew Rogers, Chemistry Teacher at SPC wanted to get the message across that science is not just a string of symbols but the application of science to real things can be fun.  Below is Andrew’s journey to make science relevant and interesting:

“I am a chemistry teacher and I have been at SPC for 10 years; I used to be in the dairy industry in various roles. I felt that many of our students have a limited understanding of what other career options are available out there. I once asked the school to buy me an ice cream maker and I spent the year with year 9 classes making ice cream. We all had loads of fun and they got quite creative. It meant science was more than boring books. About 3 years ago I decided to get into cheese making. I started by involving my year 13 chem class. I set us the challenge to see if we could make a cheese that the boys could make in year 7 and then eat in year 13 at the leavers dinner (we are up to 30 months but the flavour is very bitter). We haven’t cracked that yet but it is still the aim; as the cheese matures so does the young man. All quite poetic if we can make it work. I wanted boys to enjoy lessons and get away from typical science experiments. It was novel and they loved it. We made mozz’ a few times and they brought in crackers and dips and largely enjoyed the quirky lesson.

This particular group of boys have been in my classes for a few years. They have enthusiasm for science dripping out of  their veins so I simply involved them. Where possible I try and do cheese on days where they can play the biggest part. For this reason, if it is a school day, I will get everything warmed up and started so that when they come in at 7pm they are ready to go for it. I will come into school late at night to flip the cheese and the salting steps as this is not fair to ask of them. We regularly will make cheese when we have a teacher only day and we build it into a revision session. Their chemistry is of a high level as is their physics. We talk a lot about the different steps and the variables we need to control. I had hoped to measure pH as a function of time but the hand held meter I bought lacked any sort of accuracy varying for 5.5 to 6.5 hence I have no confidence it will be useful. I have thought about titratable acidity as a function of time. We have not started the acid base section of the course yet but I did think it would be a neat link to our current program. At the moment we struggle to control things like pH, curd size etc so we just make cheese and chat about food in general. I am told the bitterness of our cheddars are due to moisture retention so I have asked the boys to do some homework on how we could build a press that can get up to 25kg of pressure.

One student was bought a Mad Millie kit for his birthday and he is already up and running at home. I have offered him our thermostatted baths to help him. In time I hope I will be able to build a regular following of boys who are keen to learn (with a big practical component) about food and food systems. So far it has been a bit ad hoc but the intention is to create better links to the science we do. I often come through the year 7 labs and show them our cheese as the mould grows. They are very excited and have been taking photos/films of the growth over time. It helps to grow a buzz in the room and students wanting to continue in science and curious to know about food. I have since started Flour-power and pastafarians but the attendees are largely my curd nerds; still early days but the aim is to get boys enthused about science and also that the food industry offers many potential careers.

So you can see, we are really just having fun rather than creating a tightly linked science program. It would make for a great story if we did have such a link but we just have fun. Most students have NO idea where their food comes from so the awards and our principal’s overselling of the award has created lots of interest. If one of these boys ends up becoming a cheese maker then I will have done something useful.”

Education needs inspirational teachers like Andrew – cheese or dairy is a great career path to consider and there is great potential for growth. My next treat is to go and meet the cheesemakers and sample their ware –

L/R Ben Zhan Peter Hill Tiernan Phillips Daniel Sampaio Luke Smith Andrew Dr Rogers Lance Villanueva