Summer camp designed for aspiring food microbiologists

June 25, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- When you think of summer camp, you might envision activities such as volleyball, swimming, hiking, and arts and crafts. You probably wouldn't imagine food microbiology and searching for clues to the cause of an outbreak of foodborne illness.

Still, that was the focus of a camp that was held for students in grades seven to nine at Penn State's University Park campus in late June as part of the "Science-U" series of science-oriented camps. "Food Science: The Microbial Menace," which attracted 21 campers, was guided by faculty and staff from the University's Department of Food Science.

It provided students an opportunity to use microbiological techniques to solve a realistic problem -- done in a fun, engaging atmosphere.

"Through a number of highly publicized foodborne-illness outbreaks, we have become all too aware of the seriousness of pathogenic bacteria in our food supply," said Cathy Cutter, associate professor of food science and one of the coordinators of the camp.

"In the United States, there are an estimated millions of illnesses, thousands of hospitalizations and approximately 5,000 deaths each year attributed to eating contaminated foods," Cutter said. "Determining the causes of those outbreaks is a fascinating and satisfying endeavor."

Given the global nature and complexity of the food system, identifying the cause of a foodborne-illness outbreak is much like finding a needle in a haystack, Cutter said. "It requires CSI (crime scene investigator), detective-like skills of trained food microbiologists to uncover," she said.

In this camp, sponsored by the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Eberly College of Science, the middle-school students became food microbiologists-in-training. They learned about the food system -- from harvest through handling and processing -- and what it takes to make foods that are safe and wholesome.

Participants visited food-processing facilities on campus and also got hands-on experience in microbiological techniques, such as PCR scanning and bacterial enumeration.

"These aspiring food microbiologists learned the skills needed to determine the source and cause of the contamination, including laboratory methods in microbial forensics that are required to identify, track down and eliminate the offending organisms," Cutter said.

Students were presented with a case scenario, the details of an outbreak, a list of suspects and suspected facilities. They analyzed more than 12 food and water samples, used molecular methods to confirm their findings, and were encouraged to solve the case.

"Finally, campers had the opportunity to participate in a realistic mock trial, during which they developed their communication skills through a collaboration with the Dickinson School of Law," Cutter said. "They even got to use the new law-school facility's court room."

Using the results of their investigation, students argued their case to implicate the suspected perpetrator of the outbreak.

"The kids came in knowing little about food science, and by the end of the week, they were arguing technical concepts in front of a judge -- not bad for a summer camp."

  • Campers examine tests for foodborne bacteria.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010