Baking Up a Science Project
A batch of homemade muffins can easily turn into a great hands-on student science project. Grab some bowls and choose your variable!
Pumpkin muffins are a mainstay of our family's snack repertoire. I love that they are full of vitamin A, and the kids love that they have chocolate chips in them. My 12-year-old started making them by himself this year, and he's a very practical person, so it didn't surprise me when he decided to make muffins for his science experiment. "Mom, I can do my homework and make a snack at the same time."
Finding the Science in the Everyday
So how can making muffins be a science experiment? All you have to do to turn the process into hands-on science is try controlled variations (changing only one variable at a time) on the recipe or directions. For example, what happens if you bake batches at different temperatures? What happens if you change, substitute, omit, or add ingredients? My son chose to bake batches using different amounts of baking powder to see how the change in quantity would affect the height of the resulting muffins.
The Scientific Method in Action
For his school science assignment, he needed a control group and three different test groups. Rather than bake four whole batches, which would have given us 96 muffins, he chose to make four half batches. Happily, the recipe was easy to divide in two.
After gathering all of his ingredients together, he pulled four bowls out of the cupboard and labeled each one with the amount of baking powder it should contain. His control batch contained the regular amount of baking powder called for by his recipe, and the test batches contained 1) no baking powder, 2) half the normal amount of baking powder, and 3) double the normal amount of baking powder.
Throughout his experiment, he was careful to keep all other variables the same. Because he couldn't bake 48 muffins all at once, he chose to measure only the dry ingredients into each of the four bowls. He added the egg, vanilla, and other "wet" ingredients only when he was ready to put a batch in the oven. Of course, the oven was set to the same temperature for each batch, and he used a timer to make sure they all spent the same amount of time in the oven.
The Proof is in the Muffin
Once the batches were cooked and cooled, it was time to test his hypothesis about how changing the amount of baking powder in a recipe would affect muffin height. He cut each muffin at its highest point, measured it, and entered the data into a spreadsheet. Before taking the average height of each batch, he opted to throw out the shortest and tallest muffin in each batch—the outliers. What do you think his results were? I'm not letting on, except to say that they were awfully tasty!
Science Doesn't Have to Involve Lab Coats
Was this experiment "hard"? No. But it was a straightforward way to solidify the concepts of hypothesis, variable, control, data analysis, and conclusion in his mind. And, because his dad is a statistics geek, they were able to have interesting conversations about mean, median, range, and statistical significance—while enjoying a muffin and a glass of milk!
So many of the things we do everyday involve scientific principles. Help your kids make the connection!
Your Own Kitchen Science
If you and your kids are inspired to do a muffin-making (or cookie-baking) project similar to the one my son did, the Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? food science project contains a full procedure to get you started. For additional ways to "mix up" the experiment, be sure to check the Make it Your Own tab. If you are looking for a simplified version of this experiment, perfect for family together-time, see our family-friendly adapation for Scientific America's Bring Science Home.
For other food science experiments and family science activities for the kitchen, you might try one of the following:
- How Do You Make the 'Best' Cookie?
- Can Baking Soda Substitute for Baking Powder in a Recipe?
- Cookies: Can You Blame the Burnt Ones On the Cookie Sheet?
- You Want Fries With That? The Science of Crispy Potatoes
- Shimmy, Shimmy Soda Pop: Develop Your Own Soda Pop Recipe
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