Student Projects that Make a Meaningful and Lasting Contribution to Course Content


Author Schmidt is with Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition 367, Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Urbana, IL USA (E-mail:


The objective of this teaching tip is to share with others an idea of how to transform student projects from a dead-end process to a value-added end product, value-added end products that make a meaningful and lasting contribution to course content for use by future students.

Teaching Tip

I teach a large enrollment, introductory course entitled “Introduction to Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN 101).” This course is divided into 4 sections: Nutrition and Health, Food Composition and Chemistry, Food Microbiology and Processing, and Food Laws, Quality and the Consumer. I have taught this course since Fall 1996. The course ranges in enrollment from about 120 students, mainly FSHN majors and minors, to 660 students, mainly non-majors who selected FSHN 101 to fulfill a physical science general education requirement. I am passionate about teaching this course! I love coming up with new and exciting active and experiential learning activities intended to engage large numbers of students in the course material (e.g., Schmidt and others 2002, Schmidt and Bohn 2008). I love introducing students to the fascinating and relevant fields of food science and human nutrition. But, what I didn't love was early each semester, about 3 to 12 students would approach me and ask if they could make FSHN 101 a honors course. What this entailed was coming up with a special project for each honors student to complete during the semester. If the student successfully completed the project and received a B or higher in the course, then s/he would receive honors credit in the course. All James Scholar students at the University of Illinois are required to obtain a certain number of honors credits each year, either by taking specially designated honors courses or by obtaining honors credit in one of their regular courses (termed by one student as “honorizing” the course).

The reason I didn't love students doing honors projects in FSHN 101 was neither the extra work nor the extra time required, but rather the dead-end process that seemed to ensue with each project. Each student and I would come up with an appropriate topic on which the student would write a research paper. After researching the topic, the student would submit to me an 8 to 10 page draft of their paper, and then I would provide them feedback. The student would revise the paper based on my comments and resubmit the paper for honors credit. The student would receive honors credit, and I would subsequently file the paper in my FSHN 101 Honors Project file drawer. Then in 3 to 5 years, when the file drawer would fill up, I would transfer the papers to the circular file, a.k.a. the garbage can or more greenly the recycle bin. One day, as I was recycling some of the papers to make room for more, I remember asking myself “Isn't there something more useful that could be done than students writing a paper that ends up in this file drawer?” The answer seemed to come to me in a flash—why not have students contribute useful content back to the course for use by future FSHN 101 students? That simple question and the subsequent flash answer led to the development of a new honors project system in FSHN 101.

In the new honors project system, students still choose an appropriate FSHN topic to learn and communicate about, but the goal is for students to create a value-added end product that makes a meaningful and lasting contribution to course content for use by future student via linkage of the project to the FSHN 101 course website. One of the first value-added projects was a table of potential effects and side effects of some popular herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and hormones. A similar table of potential effects and side effects of some popular sports nutrition dietary supplements was added a few semesters later. These tables remain valuable additions to the course website, allowing interested students the opportunity to look up not only the reported positive benefits of different supplements, but also their possible negative side effects as well. Also, the tables can be updated with new information as it becomes available. Students are excited about contributing useful content to the course website that will be used by future students. They are also excited that their name goes on their course website contribution for all to see, a unique accomplishment that can be listed on their resumes.

One additional benefit of this new honors project system is that the honors students get to experience what it is like to design course content, a much different experience than writing a research paper. Since the project contribution is linked to the course website, the students need to work at delivering their message in a visually impactful manner, both to actively engage the learner and to assist the learner in quickly grasping the content of their contribution. A favorite term I use when explaining this concept of visually impactfulness is that I want the students to produce an information-rich visual explanation1 of their topic, that is, I want them to tell their “story” with images, diagrams, graphs, video clips, animations, anthropomorphic images, cartoons, samples, demonstrations, experiments, and performances of the subject matter, not just words. When asked how long this visually impactful project should be my favorite response is: strive to “make it short and sweet.” Students want to get a lot out of what they spend their time looking at, but they don't want to spend a long time doing it.

Since implementing this new honors project paradigm in 2003, several projects have been added to enhance the course content of the FSHN 101 website. Descriptions of 2 value-added honors projects from each of the 4 sections of FSHN 101 are given as examples in Table 1. As designated in Table 1, 2 of the projects have been added as supplemental material to the JFSE website for the interested reader.

Table 1. Descriptions of 2 example value-added honors projects from each of the 4 sections of the undergraduate FSHN 101 course
Course SectionBrief Project Descriptions
  1. *Designates that the project was added as supplemental material to the JFSE website as an example.

Nutrition and HealthEating Disorders: A Word document linked to the Nutritional Adequacy and The Body lecture that summarizes the diagnostic criteria for 3 common eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa; Bulimia Nervosa; and Binge Eating Disorder. The document contains a link for more information and additional resources and assistance on eating disorders available on the University of Illinois campus.
 Energy Drinks with Alcohol: Fun or Fatal? A PowerPoint Presentation linked to the Functional Foods and Dietary Supplements lecture that explains the potential effects and side effects of these new drinks, the current U.S. regulations and bans, and the reported problems arising from consumption of these drinks, especially on college campuses.
Food Composition and ChemistryMolecular Gastronomy*: A PowerPoint Presentation linked to the Food Chemistry: The Basics lecture that explains the underlying principles of the relatively new field of Molecular Gastronomy. Using the definition of Molecular Gastronomy as a discipline that uses science to explore the technical, as well as the art and emotional aspects, of cooking, the presentation illustrates the technical, artistic, and emotional (e.g., romantic) aspects of the discipline using numerous food examples, such as chocolate cake garnished with chilled cream, traces of gold, and smoky bubbles of cocoa and grilled watermelon sphere salad.
 Color Additives in the News: A table linked to the Food Additives: Identity and Functionality lecture that discusses color additives that have been in the news because of their association with possible negative health effects, including cancer, allergic reactions, and hyperactivity in children.
Food Microbiology and ProcessingSmells Like Socks, Tastes Like Heaven: A PowerPoint Presentation linked to the Microorganisms: Food Fermentation lecture that traces the history of mold ripened cheeses and documents the making of blue cheese and why it tastes so good, but smells so stinky.
 Food Biotechnology: A PowerPoint Presentation linked to the Biotechnology: Employing Microorganisms for Food Production lecture that traces the historical development of biotechnology and outlines the major controversies surrounding today's modern food biotechnology practices.
Food Laws, Quality and the ConsumerCommon Chemical Sense*: A PowerPoint Presentation linked to the Sensory Science lecture that explains, using a number of images, what common chemical sense is and how it works. To illustrate the huge range in the hotness of peppers (from the chemical compound capsaicin), the presentation shows the hotness rating in Scoville heat units for different peppers, from bell peppers, which contain no capsaicin with a value of 0, to Trinidad Scorpion Moruga peppers with a rating as high as 2,000,000.
 Deficiency Diseases Caused by Hunger: A Word document linked to the Global Hunger lecture that provides a description of 6 major deficiency diseases associated with hunger, their symptoms and side effects (including pictures to show advanced clinical symptoms), groups most affected, treatment options, and preventive measures.
Table 2. Descriptions of example value-added projects from 2 graduate level courses
CourseBrief Project Description
Water Relations in Foods (FSHN 595)Students are given 3 options for their course project. One of the options is to make a contribution to enhance the teaching and learning of a specific topic related to the course. The end product of this project is a contribution to the FSHN 595 and/or FSHN 101 websites or a contribution to the Wikipedia website. Two example projects are a video tour of a freeze-drying company made for use in FSHN 595 and a contribution to Wikipedia on the subject of Chocolate Bloom (2009).
Advanced Special Problems (FSHN 598)As the course project, a graduate student wrote and produced a 2-minute Xtranormal video for use in FSHN 101 explaining the benefits of the USDA's MyPlate. The video entitled “Panda and Nutrition Fairy on MyPlate” is available on YouTube (Boyd 2012). Xtranormal (2013) is a digital entertainment company that produces do-it-yourself animation software for the web and desktop, which allows the user to turn words (text-to-speech) into an animated movie.

One of the most unique FSHN 101 honors projects was a song about the importance of the concept of water activity in relation to the stability of food systems. The student wrote the lyrics and, together with a friend, recorded the song, complete with guitar accompaniment. The song was so well received that a few semesters later, the same student contributed another song for addition to the FSHN 101 website about the nutritional benefits of drinking milk. This 2nd song was completed as a small independent project. I wanted to mention these song projects, because they demonstrate the diverse project options available to students under the new value-added project system. Students can use their talents to create an end product that contributes not only to learning the course content, but also to the ever-important element of making the course fun!

The value-added honors projects have worked so well in FSHN 101 that I have since included them as an option for regular course projects in other undergraduate, as well as in graduate, courses. Table 2 provides brief project descriptions of example values-added projects for 2 graduate level courses.

Of course there are still a few challenges with the new honors project system. First, not all projects make the grade, so-to-speak, of being appended to the course website. Honors credit can still be achieved, but the project is not linked to the course website. One of the major reasons for projects not being linked to the course website is that they are not sufficiently engaging. As mentioned above, it is important that the content of the course website be as attractive and engaging for learning as possible. In order to address this challenge, I have recently added a step in the project process where students are required to obtain feedback on their project from fellow classmates, specifically on the quality of the learning engagement aspect of their project. Second, once a project has been successfully completed for a specific topic, that topic is no longer available for selection. It is possible that overtime an update to the topic is required and the topic could be come available again, but for the time being the topic is unavailable. The upside of this challenge is that it requires some students to think beyond the obvious topics, digging into less typical, but nonetheless interesting aspects of food science and human nutrition. Third, since selection of a project topic needs to be done relatively early in the semester (approximately by the third week of the semester), students tend to suggest possible topics from the first section of the course, Health and Nutrition, potentially resulting in an imbalance in projects for the other sections of the course. In an attempt to elevate this problem, when students are trying to select a topic, I ask them what got them interested in food science and human nutrition in the first place. Often their responses lead to a plethora of possible topics that touch upon all sections of the course.

Despite the above-mentioned challenges, overall, this new project system implemented in FSHN 101 and beyond is working marvelously. In fact, now I can add to the loves mentioned in the introduction that I also love doing honors projects, value-added honors projects that is, with students in FSHN 101!


I would like to thank all of the students who have participated in the new project system described in this article. I greatly appreciate the meaningful and lasting contributions that you have made to the Illinois Food Science and Human Nutrition courses mentioned herein and, moreover, to the learning of numerous future Illini.

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    For more on the topic of visual explanations the interested reader is encouraged to view the article by Schmidt (2009) entitled “Development and Use of Visual Explanations: Harnessing the Power of the “Seeing” Brain to Enhance Student Learning.”