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How cocoa beans found their way into the curriculum at UMD

UMD students Rachael Solarz (left) and Rachel Skurich sample products of the chemical engineering department’s chocolate lab on Wednesday as student worker Madeline Ogren. The department created the lab to explain chemical engineering concepts and to keep students engaged. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
The University of Minnesota Duluth’s chocolate lab uses different molds to shape its final product, adding a bit of whimsy to the process. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Steve Sternberg, an associate professor at University of Minneosta Duluth’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering, talks about the chocolate lab. Samples of various batches of student-made chocolate sit in bags on a cart next to him. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
The University of Minnesota Duluth chocolate lab is located in a converted storeroom. When the lab first started, the room is identified only with the picture of a chocolate Labrador. The explanatory text came later. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Arguably the sweetest spot on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth is a converted storeroom in the chemical engineering department.

Dubbed the chocolate lab — with a picture of a chocolate Labrador on the door to emphasize the point — the windowless room turns out chocolates in a variety of shapes with a variety of flavorings from cocoa beans grown in Papua New Guinea, Peru, Indonesia and other tropical locations.

The ulterior motive: keeping chemical engineering students in the program.

"Traditionally in engineering, the first two years are the most challenging to retain students," said Richard Davis, head of the department. "Finding a way to keep them engaged and to have them see the kinds of things they can get involved in — this is going to be a kickstarter for that."

If "chocolate" and "engineering" don't come naturally together in your mind, that's because you haven't talked to Steve Sternberg, an associate professor in chemical engineering who is UMD's in-house chocolatier.

"Everything you do to make chocolate is stuff we teach our students in class," Sternberg said.

Chocolate found its way into the curriculum thanks to Lyndon Ramrattan, chemical engineering lab coordinator.

Ramrattan grew up on the South American island nation of Trinidad and Tobago and was attending "farm school" in hopes of reviving cocoa bean farming on his family's land, he said. The plan didn't work out, because he met the woman who would become his wife, a genetic biologist from the University of Wisconsin who was studying the genetics of the cocoa plant.

"I met her in the cocoa bean field in Trinidad," Ramrattan said. "I said, 'This has got to be right,' and I followed her back to Wisconsin."

They came to UMD, where Ramrattan found work in the bookstore and then in food services before getting the chemical engineering position five years ago. After a trip home, he presented Sternberg with a 5-pound bag of cocoa beans.

The gift presented him with a question, Sternberg said. "What do I do with 5 pounds of cocoa beans?"

He could make cocoa tea, for one thing. But Sternberg said that as he went to the internet to learn how to make chocolate, he saw chemical engineering in every step along the way. He saw that process as a way to address a vexing problem: Students would learn a concept in one course but not be able to apply it in the next course they took.

By applying the concepts to a specific process, Sternberg said he thought he could show students how everything fit together.

So with help from student worker Madeline Ogren, Sternberg spent the summer incorporating chocolate-making into the curriculum and adapting the storeroom next to Davis' office into the chocolate lab.

That cost about $2,000 he said, and the cocoa beans — even though they were purchased from fair trade suppliers who use no slave or child labor — only run $500 to $1,000. That's not enough to raise the eyebrows of the university bean-counters.

"Some of our (other) experiments are $50,000 or $100,000, and that's an experiment they use one time in one class," Sternberg said.

It's too early to tell if chocolate will win the hearts of chemical engineering students and keep them in the program, but early reviews are good, Sternberg said. "Student interest is —"

He raised his hand as high as it would go.

Unlike what you'll likely buy in the store, each piece of chocolate made in the UMD chocolate lab comes from beans from a particular country rather than from a blend. Molds allow them to be formed in whimsical shapes, such as unicorns, dinosaurs and crocodiles. There are no bulldog molds, but there will be, Davis said.

But no Bulldog Chocolatier.

The storeroom-cum-lab doesn't meet safe-food quality standards, Sternberg said, so the chocolate can be consumed but not sold. All of it is given away.

But it's not eaten by the man who inspired the whole thing.

"I do not like chocolate," Ramrattan said. "I grew up every day having chocolate tea for lunch and dinner. Now I like more exotic items like hot dogs and hamburgers."