(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the October/November 2018 issue.)
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Do you ever catch your audiences dozing off during your presentations or lectures covering important food safety topics? Do you admit that you sometimes find it hard to stay awake during dull, boring, tedious presentations about sanitation and hygiene, allergen control, foodborne pathogens, and other often mundane food safety issues? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you are sure to be inspired by some food safety professionals who strive to make their presentations worthwhile, memorable, and lots of fun.
Food scientist Ronald Schmidt, PhD, a professor emeritus with the University of Florida, Gainesville, is quick to point out that it’s a constant struggle for professionals to find effective ways of communicating food safety messages to people of all ages and walks of life, from students to food industry and food service employees, and to consumers—while keeping them interested.
“Program design and modeling are important for the success of food safety messaging,” Dr. Schmidt says. “But all the information sharing in the world is of no avail if no one pays attention.”
So how can you grab people’s attention and hold it? How do you make learning science-based food safety information fun? How do you creatively motivate others to embrace sound food safety practices in order to minimize the risks of foodborne illnesses?
For starters, Dr. Schmidt says, there is a place for humor, poetry, and music in teaching. “These tools can improve learning,” he notes.
As a reference, Dr. Schmidt credits the Greek philosopher Plato for saying “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.”
Livening up the Microbiome
Frequently in demand as a food safety trainer, Dr. Schmidt firmly believes food safety training need not be tedious. He sets an example by often grabbing his guitar and livening up the microbiome with a toe-tapping song or two. He delights audiences with songs he wrote called “FSMA on His Hip” to the tune of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” and “Salmonella Wind” to Tom Russell’s “Santa Ana Wind.” Another of his crowd pleasers is “Chop, Cook, Slice (Listeria in the 1990s),” a song about Listeria in deli meats inspired by Slaid Cleaves’ “Hickory.” During December, he invites audiences to participate in his version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Twelve Steps of HACCP.”
“Playing and listening to music works several areas of the brain,” Dr. Schmidt relates. “Research shows that music increases memory and improves test scores. Moreover, music increases optimism, decreases anxiety, and enhances both attention and creativity.”
Human beings have learned through rhyme throughout history, Dr. Schmidt notes. “That started with cave people, who communicated with musical grunts.”
Drawing on his 40 some years as an educator, Dr. Schmidt offers several tips to anyone interested in adding creative touches to their teaching. “Never use humor at a student’s or audience member’s expense,” he emphasizes. “Self-deprecating humor usually goes over, but don’t overdo it. And don’t be offensive.”
Know your audience, Dr. Schmidt advises. “The generation gap is real. And it’s important to be aware of cultural differences,” he relates.
The Author of Parodiomics
As an extension toxicologist in the University of California-Davis Department of Food Science, Carl Winter, PhD, focuses on protecting consumers from chemical contaminants of food.
Aside from his more traditional professional endeavors, Dr. Winter is known by his many fans as the Elvis of E. coli and the Sinatra of Salmonella. That’s because he is a pioneering educator and performer who uses musical parodies he writes and records himself to provide food safety information in a creative and fun way. In fact, he is so into writing parodies, he credits himself for creating parodiomics, the innovative concept and the word.
“The major goal of incorporating music and fun into food safety is to improve learning,” Dr. Winter emphasizes. He’s been doing just that for nearly 30 years. Since the early 1990s, from humble beginnings and while continually honing his presentation skills, he has performed at dozens of food safety events throughout the country, including Institute of Food Technologists section meetings.
In July 1998, Dr. Winter recorded his first CD titled “Stayin Alive.” He is showcased on the cover photo wearing a white lab coat and holding an iconic “Saturday Night Fever” pose that would make a polyester shirt-clad John Travolta proud. The following year, he released his second CD, “Sanitized for Your Convenience.” The cover features a graphic of a paper strip like the ones found on toilets in cheap motels, Dr. Winter notes.
What songs are on these wildly popular CDs? If you love the Beatles, you are sure to enjoy Dr. Winter’s version of their iconic “I want to Hold Your Hand,” “You’d Better Wash your Hands.” Fans of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” will appreciate “I Sprayed it on the Grapevine.” With Dr. Winter, Queen’s “We are the Champions”/“We Will Rock You” becomes “They Might Kill You”/“We are the Microbes.” The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Dr. Winter says rap music offers any hip food safety parodiomist a great advantage in reaching younger audiences. “Rap has so many words that you can convey many messages with one song,” he relates, citing his take on Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Don’t Get Sicky Wit It,” which addresses Fight Bac!’s major concepts: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
In 2002, Dr. Winter snagged a five-year USDA National Integrated Food Safety Initiative grant for a study about using music to improve food safety curricula. Collaborators included New Mexico State University, Clemson University, the University of Idaho, North Carolina State University, and the University of Delaware. The study yielded three peer-reviewed journal articles.
Empowered by his successes, Dr. Winter offers several take home messages relative to spicing up food safety education.
“Humanize yourself by being yourself and telling your own story to communicate more effectively,” he says. “You don’t have to do music if that’s not your thing. Maybe you write poetry or have an interesting hobby. Consider your unique attributes and interests and how you can incorporate them in your work.”
Be flexible and go with the flow, Dr. Winter adds. “Food safety is serious, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at the same time,” he relates. “Fun can definitely be used to covey messages and make messages stick.”
Super Active Learning
David Baumler, PhD, recalls when he joined the faculty of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul in 2014 as an assistant professor of molecular food safety microbiology, attendance in the undergraduate introductory microbiology lectures that met at 8:00 a.m. was less than 50 percent, especially during the Friday morning sessions.
Trusty ukulele in hand, Dr. Baumler is proud to report that he was soon able to raise Friday morning attendance to more than 90 percent. He even had students saying they looked forward to coming to class. “Some students who had previously said they dreaded ‘another boring micro class’ actually ended up changing their career paths to a focus on microbiology after completing my course,” Dr. Baumler boasts.
So, what’s his secret to sparking student interest in early morning micro lectures and inspiring micro careers? Answer: A little something Dr. Baumler calls super active learning.
“Active learning, or constructivism, is a pedagogical term for teaching methods that enhance student learning by engaging the students to actively participate, and super active learning is taking this method to the next level of engagement with creativity, props, and activities that really engage the student learning experience,” he explains.
Dr. Baumler’s stash of classroom visual aids includes real and toy musical instruments, costumes, glow powders and sticks, confetti cannons, bubble machines, smoke machines, and post-it notes. He also has dozens of hula hoops, which he uses during the evolution of bacteria lecture to demonstrate plasmid conjugation and the acquisition of new genes such as antibiotic resistance, virulence factors, and new metabolic capabilities. Then there is a collection of more than 100 wacky hats.
“The staff at my local Party City knows me by my first name, and once, while purchasing an abundance of zombie make up and costumes, one of the employees said to me ‘sir, I don’t know what your job is, but I want it,’” Dr. Baumler quips.
In micro lab, he is known to tap into his German roots when making fermented foods like sauerkraut. “Wir machen sauerkrauten,” he sings, while playing his concertina and sporting a chef’s hat and apron. He adds to the fun by using a real sword to chop the cabbage.
To enhance E. coli O157:H7 studies and give his students the opportunity to express any angst with their professor, Dr. Baumler passes out pieces of paper in assorted colors, each color representing a different virulence factor gene category. (The bacteria use these genes in a cascade to cause disease and severely damage the host.)
“I ask the students to pretend to be E. coli O157:H7 and to make paper airplanes and crushed balls representing the different virulence factor categories,” Dr. Baumler says. “Then they shoot them at me in the order the bacteria use them to cause disease, while I run around the classroom being attacked by the audience of pathogenic E. coli. They attack me with their paper projectiles, weakening the host as I stagger around, and after enough Shiga toxin-colored airplanes hit me and my kidneys shut down (feigned), then I fall down, pretending to be dead. It’s always a great way for students to learn the cascade of genes required to sicken and cause death in a human, and it allows them to cut up and vent their frustrations.”
To help his micro students review Gram staining for their midterm exam that is typically scheduled close to Mardi Gras, Dr. Baumler went to the local Ax-Man Surplus store and purchased 16 secondhand Mardi Gras costumes in red, purple, and green for two dollars each. At the neighborhood dollar store he picked up hundreds of strings of red, purple, and green beads.
“I recruit a cadre of food science graduate students to don the costumes and stage a Mardi Gras parade, with signs on their backs denoting different bacteria, including Gram positive (purple), Gram negative (red), and spore formers (green),” Dr. Baumler relates. “I play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on my invisible trumpet while the grad students march around and toss the beads to the undergrads. Some of the students note that by learning through this activity, they will remember forever that E. coli is Gram negative (red/pink) and Bacillus and Staphylococcus are Gram positive (purple).”
Without question, Drs. Schmidt, Winter, and Baumler convey extraordinary examples of how people can use their talents to liven up food safety presentations and keep any audiences awake, attentive, and more apt to retain important messages, not to mention more prone to jump to their feet, applauding for more. Dr. Baumler, who moonlights as Davey Doodle, a children’s entertainer, is quick to emphasize that even those lacking musical talents should be able to figure out how to think outside the box and incorporate some creativity into teaching any age group. “Magic tricks, costumes, and glow powders with black lights are a few ideas,” he suggests.
Dr. Baumler’s post-doctoral research at the Genome Center of Wisconsin focused on several diverse topics, including pedagogical teaching methodology, and a spicier subject, the evolution and cultivation of more than 100 different types of chili peppers.
Not surprisingly, he has become a popular chili pepper expert and consultant for farmers and the food and beverage industry, now growing 500 varieties at University of Minnesota, none of which he is afraid to eat, no matter how hot they may be. In fact, many fans call him Dr. Pepper. If you spot a guy out and about sporting a bright red chili pepper costume, and singing a chili pepper song while strumming a ukulele, it might well be Dr. Baumler. Seriously.
Fun Food Safety Training Aids
A list compiled by Ronald Schmidt, PhD, University of Florida (Emeritus):
- Safe or Sorry (Minnesota Department of Health)
- Let Me Tell You How Dad Got Sick! (USDA)
- Scrub Club (NSF International)
- Fight Bac! (FDA)
- HACCP training packages (Alchemy Academy and others)
- Food Safety Jeopardy and Food Safety Password
- HACCP Jeopardy
- Using Dice Games to Teach Hazards, Risks, and Outcomes in HACCP Classes (O.A. Oryarzabel)