Students Burn Food To Determine Calorie Numbers

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Suzanne Jacobson/Roundup

Kyndel Lann (left) and Michelle Daniels try to ignite a marshmallow so they can count how many calories it has in Cindy Pool’s Advanced Placement chemistry class.

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Photos by Suzanne Jacobson/Roundup

From left to right, Kyndel Lann, Kayla Francis and Michelle Daniels examine the progress of the junk food they are trying to set aflame to count calorie content in an Advanced Placement chemistry lab.

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Sumit Patel watches a cheese curl burn during a lab in Cindy Pool’s Advanced Placement chemistry class.

It's not every day high school students get to light food on fire. But one group in Cindy Pool's Advanced Placement chemistry class in particular excelled, using two lighters to ignite a saltine.

It turns out, they were also among the best at lighting cheese curls on fire, in the name of counting calories.

"Mrs. Pool, I think we figured out how to make flaming hot Cheetos," called out Ryan Ammann. The group attributed its success to pyromania.

"You burned off the calories. It's a health food now," said Jay Owens. The ultimate mission, besides successfully setting junk food aflame, was to measure the amount of heat released so students could determine calorie content.

Students placed marshmallows, cheese curls, potato chips, saltines, cashews or peanuts underneath aluminum cans, lit them on fire, then measured the change in temperature of the water inside the can.

Pool said that the technique was similar to the one used by professional scientists when they discern calorie counts to place on supermarket food nutritional labels.

"This is a low-tech version of what they do," Pool said.

Except for one thing -- Pool's class did not account for the heat captured in the aluminum. The anticipated margin of error, however, was not large.

"I hope they come away understanding how different foods have different energy content," Pool said.

She's also eager to show her students, who are juniors and seniors, that chemistry can be fun. "It can be a difficult subject," she acknowledged.

Most of her students take more than one AP class. One hundred and fifty Payson High School students are enrolled in AP classes like American history, biology, calculus, English, and U.S. government. AP chemistry boasts the highest enrollment with 56 students in two classes.

District officials have said more students than ever are taking AP classes.

To qualify for Pool's class, students must earn an A or B in first-year chemistry.

But even talented young chemists sometimes get confused.

Prior to the lab, Pool returned a test students took, lamenting that many wrongly answered a question she thought simple.

"I asked this one just to see if you were paying attention," she said.

The question involved adding volumes of liquids with the same concentrations. Students were adding undue difficulty, Pool said.

Also, as Pool spent more time on equations, students fell into more uncertainty. "I think some of you are plain old getting confused."

She worked an equation on the board -- chlorine plus sodium bromide -- to clarify, with a poster of a sweetly disheveled Albert Einstein hanging to the left. A bulletin board on another wall featured "People of the Atomic Structure" like Niels Bohr and Max Planck.

Chemistry "doesn't have to be this terrible subject that everybody hated going to in school," Pool said.

To energize the students, she tries to make labs fun.

"These are the best students in the school. I'm lucky to teach them," Pool said.

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