Coffee and Engineering Education

The Lempert Report
November 09, 2016

I went to an engineering university undergrad, but never had a project like this.

William Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl, two engineering professors at the University of California, Davis, were faced with a dilemma,  students have been dropping out after a steady diet of mathematics in the first years of college. 

Kuhl told NPR he "had the idea of taking apart a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker" to study how the designers solved the small-scale engineering challenge of brewing coffee." But the concept became bigger than coffee. It dawned on Ristenpart that every aspect of coffee-making matched a major topic in the chemical engineering curriculum, from the chemical reactions of roasting, to mass transfer (when hot water extracts oils and flavor compounds from coffee grounds), and fluid dynamics, which control the flow of hot water and steam. 

Looks like Mr. Coffee has begat a seminar for first-year engineering students. Three years later, the course, called Design of Coffee, is the most popular elective class at the entire university. It fills the largest lecture hall on campus. Last year, the course was offered each term, and more than 1,500 students took it. Most of them weren't even engineering students. 

According to the article in NPR, in the coffee lab, teams of students start with identical unroasted coffee beans and compete to produce the best-tasting product. Last term's winner blew away the competition with an "aeropress" method, similar to a French press, that produced coffee with a smell that reminded people of blueberries. 

The Specialty Coffee Association of America heard about it and has now worked with the professors to create an entire center devoted to research on coffee – the UC Davis Coffee Center, a 6,000-square-foot building on the UC Davis campus.  END Not far from the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, a world leader in research on grapes and wine. Peet's Coffee is donating $250,000 to help renovate the building and build a pilot coffee roastery.