STEM To Steam: How Coffee Is Perking Up Engineering Education : The Salt Coffee can teach us many things, including engineering. At the University of California, Davis, it's now the focus of the most popular elective class on campus and of an ambitious new research center.

STEM To Steam: How Coffee Is Perking Up Engineering Education

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Coffee and college go together quite well, as many students and former students can testify. Now one university is using coffee to teach chemical engineering, and it's been wildly successful. NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's not easy studying chemical engineering. Bill Ristenpart, who teaches at the University of California, Davis, says there's a lot of basic math and physics at first. Students don't get to do anything practical with that knowledge.

WILLIAM RISTENPART: And if you don't really have a good sense of what the, you know, goal is, then it becomes very challenging to stick through a pretty tough curriculum.

CHARLES: So colleges are trying to give students a better sense of what that goal might be with a hands-on project early on. A few years ago, Ristenpart and a colleague were looking for such a project. And it struck them - coffee making. It's all chemical engineering. Think about it, all those chemical reactions when you roast the beans.

RISTENPART: The roasters we use, a chemical engineer would call them a fluidized bed reactor.

CHARLES: And when hot water extracts coffee flavor and oils from the ground up beans?

RISTENPART: We would call that mass transfer.

CHARLES: What drives water through an automatic drip coffee machine? Fluid dynamics. So they created a course - design of coffee. Teams of students competed to create the best-tasting coffee while using the least amount of energy. They got 18 students the first year, the next year - 300. Last year, it was the most popular elective course on the entire campus. A quarter of the freshman class took it.

Molly Spencer, who is a graduate student in food science, has been a teaching assistant for the course. For college students, she says, it's perfect.

MOLLY SPENCER: That's when people start drinking coffee a lot of times - in college. So it's very relevant to their personal lives, too.

CHARLES: Is there a lot of coffee drinking going on in these labs?

SPENCER: Yeah, over-caffeinated undergrads.

CHARLES: (Laughter).

And Bill Ristenpart's coffee fixation has taken a new turn. Instead of using coffee to teach engineering, now he wants to use engineering to learn more about coffee. He's raising money for a whole new coffee research center at UC Davis. He says there's a lot we can still learn about coffee. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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