Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Bacon Apart: A Rigorous (and Delicious) Student-Centered Project

August 2, 2013
Shawn Cornally
Pavelka Point pork side from Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

When a student comes to you and asks, "Can you teach me how to make bacon?", the only response is to start immediately. When you work at a competency-based school, your second response is, "And we'll turn it into a chemistry credit!"

This student was not interested in how to cook bacon per se -- that's an easy enough task once you've acquired a griddle and some heat. This student wanted to know how to transform a humble pork primal into the chemical wonderland that is bacon (or pancetta, or guanciale).

This is where things can go from good to awesome.

Anatomy of a Pitch

By way of a little backstory, my school (called "The Big Ideas Group" or BIG) delivers 90% of our content through projects and problems, and we write individual competencies that are correlated back to standards for our assessments.

So, when a student pitches an idea, he or she knows that it's about to turn into a magical tour-de-force of all the science and math I can shove into the process of curing, smoking and serving one of the most storied preparations of pork.

The school was designed to facilitate this kind of give-and-take between our students and faculty. Students pitch ideas knowing full well that they might be half-baked or even parboiled. They trust their mentors and teachers to help bloom and culture rigorous projects as a team -- we firmly believe in co-designing curriculum.

The student and I sat down and began to whiteboard out some central questions. This stage is integral to the co-design process, because it functions as a valid pre-assessment of the student's abilities while simultaneously helping the mentor to know why the student actually finds this topic interesting. Here's the initial list:

  1. Where do you get raw bacon?
  2. Why does it cook up pink and red?
  3. Why is bacon so fatty, and why does that fat not gross people out like steak fat?
  4. What does smoking do to the meat; why are some bacons smoked and some aren’t?
  5. These questions generally don't sound academic, at least at first, and that's how you know you're on the right track. These are real questions, the things people ask themselves as they bumble through their lives. These are the kinds of inquiries that BIG traffics in. It's the mentor's job to see the content knowledge here, and to guide the student through to a more academic understanding of these ideas.

    Competencies and Standards

    We began with the first question: where does someone get raw bacon? For that matter, what part of the pig is it? This set us marching down a very Michael Pollan-y track of locating a pig farmer we trusted, going out to visit the farm, and eventually ordering 20 pounds of fresh pork sides (ab muscles, really).

    My student was forced to come to terms with the way animals are raised for slaughter, how the food they eat affects their (and our) nutrition, and how their environment plays into that. For a little perspective, we watched the best Portlandia sketch ever, just to make sure we didn't go all the way down the rabbit hole.

    Instead of taking tests, our students meet expectations that are written specifically for them and their projects. My job is to look at the content standards, wrap them up into contextually relevant bundles, and then present them to the student as something he should strive for as he strives for the best bacon possible. Competencies are the verbs, the student does them, and he must learn facts in order to meet them. Standards are the nouns, and the student must learn the material listed in the standard, but never simply because it's a part of some magical standards list. The need to learn is integrated into the language of the assessment of the project.

    This student spent an amazing amount of time analyzing the fat and sugar content of hog feeds: corn, acorns, fermented silage, scraps, walnuts, etc. There were fundamental biology standards at play here -- my student was grappling with the sheer amount of saturated fat being produced in an animal fed by the gratuitous starches provided in modern feed corn. Vocabulary like saturated, unsaturated, disaccharide and other macro-molecule terms were being rooted somewhere real in his brain -- namely a farm 25 miles east of our city.

    After researching and frankensteining several bacon curing recipes, my student culled out the most important parts of the process and began to cure the bellies. This could easily turn into gee-whiz science time, but we walk that line on the side of rigor. Each day my student measured the amount of osmotically generated curing liquid released by the soon-to-be bacon. He generated osmotic pressure curves, and his competency included being able to present them and field questions to his peers. He was also addressing the reading, measuring and reporting of nitrate levels that are so hotly debated in the meat community.

    The Smell of Success

    My student designed, built, welded, and fabricated his smoker. Here it is being judged at the Johnson County Fair.

    Credit: Shawn Cornally

    This only got more delicious, as my student smoked and cooked his first batch. He built the smoker himself, using parts we salvaged from various sources in the community. He learned to weld aluminum, and we took temperature data to get the thermodynamic behavior of his smoker. (It wanted to hold at 298° F, a little too hot.) And, with an unapologetically Iowan flair, he entered it in the county fair and won a purple ribbon (yes, there's a step above blue!) and admittance into the State Fair.

    All the while I was providing instructional support on par with the "rigor" I would have demanded back in my traditional classroom. The context is so rich and the motivation so real, I couldn't help but feel that we glossed over the antiseptic chemistry of smoke and creosote and many other standards in favor of the myriad other content standards that the student learned.

    As the pilot class of my school has rolled out its projects, I've had lots of educators acquiesce that what we do here is a fun and interesting supplement, as if we're an unproven herbal remedy. There's a certain coal that burns white-hot in my gut when comments like that are thrown around. In two weeks, my bacon student covered, learned, and contextualized more from the Next Generation Science Standards than I ever could have dreamed about in my regular classroom. More importantly, he's internally motivated to dig deeper, he's hanging a fermented sausage as I write this, and it has pH probes sticking out like a horror movie prop.

    I'm proud of my school district for giving students the option to learn in a competency- and project-based environment. It's not for everyone -- especially if students are told by an adult, "That's not for you." Whenever I hear an adult tell a student that classroom-style rigor is the only way to get into college (or to be a generative human being), I have to just snap off a jerkied piece of student-made guanciale, flip through a series of thermal curves for cylindrical vs. rectangular smokers, and calmly carry on.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Science
  • 9-12 High School

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