Food Engineering

The power of the young people

December 1, 2007

Looking at the past often helps us determine the best course of future action.  The major stories Food Engineering covered this year included the declining number of qualified food engineers as well as the dwindling interest by young people to pursue engineering as a career. All of this, of course, led to our coverage of the increase in outsourced engineering projects. Other important themes during 2007 were food safety, rising energy costs, sustainability and consumer issues.

Our food plants are nothing without our people and their good ideas. And some good ideas can come from where you might least expect them: high school students. In fact, I recently learned about some enterprising young ladies in my local area while reading The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology recognizes talent and fosters individual growth for high school students willing to challenge themselves in scientific research. Through this competition, students have an opportunity to achieve national recognition for projects they complete in high school.

One of the 2007 finalists, Naomi Collipp, was inspired to research food science after working in a fast food restaurant and noticing probes were used to spot check only a few of the burgers that were sold. As a result, she created a system where every burger served could be tested. Naomi and two friends-Caroline Lang and Rebecca Erhrardt-cooked dozens of hamburgers and concluded the best way to tell if a burger is safely cooked is by comparing video images. The team mounted a camera above the stove that took a photo every 30 seconds, used software to measure the burgers’ sizes and recorded  the time it took to reach the proper temperature. They even injected raw burgers with E. coli.

Not only did their system work, it earned them $6,000 in scholarship money.

These young women are now competing in a group of 12 national finalists, hoping to achieve the grand prize of $100,000.

While many forecasters think the engineering talent pool is slowly shrinking, competitions like this can help fund education to train future food engineers. The power to keep the food industry safe is in the hands and minds of our young people. The challenge is to make the job compelling enough to attract them.