P633: Engaging first year undergraduates in research: The Coffee Project
The Coffee Project at the University of Oklahoma was initiated in January 2014 with six first-year undergraduate students investigating the molecular gastronomy of coffee. Molecular gastronomy is the science of applying molecular analytic techniques to understanding the chemical makeup of taste and is ideally suited to introducing students to bench-centered research. During the first two-thirds of the term, students investigated a common question regarding the staling of roasted coffee beans upon storage. Green coffee from different regions was freshly roasted to light, medium and dark levels. Coffee was brewed using best coffeehouse practices under controlled grind, temperature, time and water ratios to give optimized percent dissolved solids and percent extraction. After extracting the coffee with organic solvent, the flavor components were quantified against an internal standard and identified by Kovats-indexed retention times using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Variations in the concentration of around forty flavor components were determined and graphed. Marked differences were apparent in the different roast levels and more subtle changes were detected between varieties and as a function of storage time before brewing. During the last third of the term, the students designed and conducted research to test their own independent questions related to the study of coffee. They contributed to a common project poster, and each prepared a poster on their independent inquiry. The retention of these students in STEM related studies will be followed. This project demonstrates a scalable program to engage students in meaningful research that can readily incorporate independent inquiry.