Cheese Making Failure a Success

If there were a cheese tasting competition between the class of 2018 and the class of 2019 at SYA Italy, there would be no contest. Last year, the result was tasty, beautifully-formed wheels of cheese; this year, students made a goopy mess. But if each class were tested on the science behind cheese making, our bet is on the class of 2019.

Making cheese is a part of the agroecology course in which students investigate the intersection between Italian food and culture. When this year’s cheese making experience failed, Resident Director Pat Scanlon saw an opportunity. Putting their their knowledge of cheese making to the test, Scanlon asked students to design an experiment to identify what went wrong.

Students were divided into groups, each assigned the task of forming a hypothesis and designing an experiment to put it to the test. One control group was established, using the same recipe from the initial failed batch.

To understand the experiments, as well as the outcome, requires an introductory understanding of the science behind cheese. At its most basic, cheese making is the process of coagulating casein, a protein within milk, into curds. The curds are then separated from the rest of the liquid to form the structure of the cheese. Adding enzymes to milk is one way to catalyze coagulation, and was the chosen method in the failed cheese making attempt (to learn how enzymes encourage coagulation, click here).

The student groups tested different variables, some investigating the amount of enzyme used, others looking into how temperature could impact coagulation. In one experiment, the same proportions were used as the initial attempt, but with a different enzyme. This experiment resulted in success, with proper amounts of coagulation. Based on this result, the students returned to the initial enzyme, varying the amounts used. When they used ten times the amount that had been used in the failed batch, the milk finally coagulated. Through this experiment, the students were able to conclude that the failed cheese was due to a dilute enzyme.

Scanlon and Head of Schools and Programs Dr. Aric Visser couldn’t have been happier with the outcome of the failed cheese experience. Visser explains, “This type of learning is the cornerstone of where we are moving as a school — experiential, place-based, and centered around the idea that students need to be able to identify and fix problems.”

While the first attempt to make cheese was a failure, the challenge of investigating why the process failed pushed students to reach a deeper understanding. Weeks from now, after the cheese has been allowed to age properly, the students will have their first taste of success.