UMD Chocolate Lab teaches chemical engineering in the sweetest way

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Many science labs have harsh chemicals and stressed students, but UMD offers a unique way to learn chemical engineering: a chocolate lab.

“It’s really good learning,” said Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Steve Sternberg. “They’re getting a really detailed understanding of the processes going on. but it’s done in a really fun way. So it often doesn’t even feel painful, like learning.”

“Usually labs at the university have a lot of planning and preparation,” said Chemical Engineering Lab Coordinator Lyndon Ramrattan. “This one sort of organically grew out of a seed.”

Rather than basing a lab off of curriculum, the idea for this lab started with cocoa beans. Ramrattan’s grandmother had sent him a care package with cocoa beans. While walking by one day, Sternberg smelled the chocolate. He was quickly impressed by the quality.

“I ran out and I had to find more, and I looked into how you find them and where you get them,” Sternberg recalled. “I realized that you can make your own chocolate and that all of the steps associated with making chocolate are things I normally teach in chemical engineering programs. So I wrote a little grant to get some money to do this. I called it ‘Chocolate Across the Curriculum and Outreach.”

Now a busy lab with students making a batch or two a week, the committee-run chocolate club started out small.

“I think we started in 2018,” said Sternberg. “We were in a little closet people were so enthusiastic about it that we kept moving it to bigger and bigger spaces, and now we’ve got a whole laboratory there.”

“Even though it’s a chemical engineering lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, we allow any student in any department of the university to become a member in our chocolate club,” Ramrattan explained. “They can come in here and it does allows for the student to develop their own ideas and their own taste for fun stuff.”

Students make the chocolate from scratch, recently even having the opportunity to harvest cocoa beans themselves. Ramrattan and Sternberg hosted a class in Trinidad over winter break, bringing back over a hundred pounds of cocoa beans for students to make chocolate with in the lab.

“I had never traveled out of the country before I went, and that was it. It was an incredible experience,” said UMD Senior Mazie Jackon. “The beans that we get here have already been fermented, which is the last step in the process before they get shipped anywhere. Back at the farms, we got to see picking the pods off the trees and working with the farmers and everything.”

The chocolate club had a Valentine’s Day sale to raise money for future study abroad programs, but the experience is what students value most.

"I think the biggest thing that I’ve personally gotten out of the lab is just the collaboration between students and most of my friends I’ve made in the lab, and it’s just really cool,” Jackon said. “There’s nowhere else on campus that or other clubs that I’ve been a part of, that I’ve been able to connect with other students that are not in the same year as me."