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Class Uses Chocolate to Help Students Learn About Topics From Advertising to Evolution

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    One of the projects in the First-Year Seminar class on chocolate is to create some sort of artwork related to chocolate.

Class takes an interdisciplinary approach to chocolate.

College credit for tasting chocolate? It almost seems too good to be true.

But listen to Romi Burks talk about the course she has created, and you realize that she is quite serious about the lessons that can be learned from studying this popular food.

Burks, an assistant professor of biology at Southwestern, has developed a course that uses chocolate as a model to help students learn about everything from different cultures to marketing and fair trade.

The course, titled “Multi-Chocolated: An Aesthetic, Historical and Scientific Journey into the Wonders of Chocolate,” is one of 28 “First-Year Seminars” offered to incoming students at Southwestern. The seminars are designed to be fun, yet at the same time expose students to important skills such as reading, writing, critical thinking, discussion and creativity.

An aquatic biologist, Burks says her love affair with chocolate began in the summer of 2004 when she went to Katholic University in Leuven, Belgium, to study the behavior of a small crustacean.

“I couldn’t help but taste the chocolate,” she says.

After returning to Texas, Burks began brainstorming about how she could develop a First-Year Seminar course on chocolate. She began reading everything she could get her hands on about chocolate − from the process of making chocolate to the social history that has been associated with chocolate, and the health benefits of chocolate.

Burks got a lucky break last summer when she went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit a friend and discovered Zingerman’s Café, a high-end delicatessen that sells many of the chocolates she had read about in books.

“I spent the whole day there,” Burks says. Zingerman’s chocolatier, Emily “Duff” Anderson, helped Burks select $300 worth of chocolate to send home for the class.

During the course of the eight-week class, students tasted more than 35 different types of chocolates. Each “tasting” had a different theme, such as “Can chocolate save the rainforest” or “Chocolate in European culture.” Burks explained how all five senses – looking, listening, smelling, tasting and feeling – are incorporated when tasting chocolate. She developed a tasting sheet for the class based on a chapter from “The Chocolate Connoisseur” by Chlooe Doutre-Rousel.

“We all became chocolate snobs,” says Catie Ertel, a psychology major from Grapevine, Texas.

Homework assignments for the class included reading three books, writing a paper on a recent trend in chocolate, and creating a piece of art using chocolate as the centerpiece. Students also had to do a marketing project in which they created a new application for chocolate.

The class also included a variety of guest lectures from other Southwestern professors: a chemistry professor lectured on antioxidants, a psychology professor lectured on chocolate and the brain, a business professor lectured on marketing, and an anthropology professor lectured on chocolate and social justice. A local chocolatier also visited the class.

Although Burks has found two other college-level courses on chocolate – one offered by a food science department and another offered by a history department, she believes her class is the only one that offers an interdisciplinary approach to chocolate.

“I never dreamed there was so much to know about chocolate,” says Julie Ann White, an education major from Graham, Texas.

Burks says students all did well on their final exams – an indication that they were definitely engaged in the class. “The evaluations were all very good, too,” she says with a smile.

Burks also has woven chocolate into the regular biology classes she teaches at Southwestern. Last spring, she published a paper in The American Biology Teacher that shows educators how chocolate can be used to teach complicated topics such as phylogenetics.

“A serious, critical exploration of evolution may have an increased likelihood of staying with students who fall under the mysterious spell of chocolate… Particularly at 8 a.m. or late afternoons,” Burks wrote.