New microbiology course offers look into bread, chocolate and coffee

Coffee and Bread Picture 

For me, the words “bread, chocolate, and coffee” conjure daydreams of a warm summer day, sipping espresso and indulging a Pain au Chocolat at a French bistro by the sea.  But would you be surprised to hear that that same daydream is only possible because of microbes? Yes, those savory and sweet concoctions only make it to our cups and plates after spending some quality time with bacteria and yeasts.

This semester, students in USciences Applied Microbiology course will learn about the process of fermentation in producing bread, chocolate and coffee. Fermentation was, quite likely, “discovered” by accident in ancient times when a basket of grapes, left out for too long, was found to be not spoiled – but rather delightful.  This same principle was then applied to many other types of food sources, including wet flour, cacao pods, and coffee cherries.  While these fermentations have been taking place for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the cause of fermentation was actually identified as microscopic organisms – what were eventually identified as bacteria and yeast. The boon of cellular biology in the 20th century then allowed scientists to understand the chemical reactions that occur during fermentation – namely the breakdown of sugars into acids, alcohols, and gases.

In modern times, the process of mixing flour and water to make leavened baked goods has been largely industrialized and well-studied.  Students in Applied Microbiology will conduct their own sourdough fermentations and test how farming styles – conventional vs. organic flours – impact the microbial ecology and physiology. Students will then manipulate their fermentations and learn how those decisions impact the final bread product from John McGrath, executive baker at Philly’s hometown café giant La Colombe.

Around mid-October, unbeknownst to many of us in North America, the late cocoa harvest will begin in the tropics.  The cocoa used in chocolate is derived from the fruit of cacao trees, which harbor the cocoa beans, or seeds.  At the beginning of the harvest season, students in the course will then receive cacao fruit and will proceed to ferment the beans, as cocoa farmers around the world do – they will leave it in a box for seven days. During this time, students will examine the microbial ecology and physiology and then correlate it to the presence of polyphenols – those compounds that have recently been touted as “making chocolate good for you.” Students will then be treated to a tasting panel at Hershey’s Technology Center, led by Master Chocolatier Jim St. John and hear the lasted in chocolate research and development.

Finally, as the colder weather sets in, students will begin their final fermentation of coffee cherries.  When coffee cherries are harvested, the bean can undergo low, medium, or high fermentation, which will affect the final complexity and depth of the coffee itself.  Because the beans are often fermented by the natural microflora found on the cherry, students will introduce specific “starter cultures” to identify what bacterial and/or yeast strains result in the most efficient fermentation.  To experience how differing methods and styles of coffee fermentation affect the drink characteristics, students will participate in a ‘cupping’ – an official coffee tasting – at a local Philly café.  

Through the semester, students will also be reading Simran Sethi’s cultural exploration “Bread, Wine, & Chocolate,” which takes a macroscopic view of many fermented foods (without going into too much microbiology), and even provides tasting guides – it’s a really fun read for anybody.  By reading the book, students will not only be able to manipulate the microbes of their fermentations, but place into greater context how optimizing food fermentation interconnects with issues of biodiversity, sustainability, fair trade and their own experiences with food. 

Students will be maintaining a blog of their research, which you can follow at


Follow Dr. Stacey Gorski on Twitter @Dr_Gorski


Google Apps for Education at USciences

The University of the Sciences has "Gone Google". Google Apps for Education gives all faculty, students and staff a state-of-the-art communication and collaboration platform. Google Apps is not a learning management system (LMS) like Angel or Blackboard -- it supplements our existing e-learning and online administrative tools. For example, we now have the ability to easily share and collaboratively edit documents online that are compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. No more trading large email attachments and loosing track of who has the latest revision. Faculty can share large documents and data files with collaborators all over the world without clogging up email in-boxes. We can also create unlimited “wiki” websites (Sites in Google parlance) and stream videos from our own private UScience branded YouTube-like site.

Acceptance by users has been very encouraging. In the month of September we’ve had almost 1,200 unique visitors visiting 2,952 times resulting in over 13,000 page views. Faculty, staff and students have created over 300 sites to help committees, departments, courses and programs collaborate without the constraints of Angel or the Campus Portal.  Popular use cases include building personal profiles, project management wikis, forms, surveys, and student e-portfolios and group project sites.

USciences faculty, staff and students can logon at and find video tutorials and answers to frequently asked questions.


Going Google at the University

The University of the Sciences has just rolled out Google Apps for Education. This optional resource gives all faculty, students and staff a state-of-the-art communication and collaboration platform to supplement our existing e-learning infrastructure. We now have the ability to share and collaboratively edit documents compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. We can create unlimited Wiki websites (Sites in Google parlance) and stream videos from our own private branded YouTube-like site. All content resides in the University's protected domain and will require a login and password to view.

The following presentation links to 3 short Google videos and highlights where Google Apps fits within our e-learning platform, who will use it, what it is used for, and why we decided to deploy it.

Lecture Capture Using Mediasite

Lecture capture is an important component of classroom technology at the University. Lecture capture allows instructors to record what happens in their classrooms and make it available electronically through our Angel LMS. We use Mediasite in the major lecture halls to capture high quality video of the instructor and everything that is projected in class, including the instructors desktop computer screen (e.g., web sites, applications, PowerPoint slides), document camera output or hand-writing on the interactive podium display.

Lecture capture systems offer three important benefits:

    * an alternative when students miss class
    * an opportunity for course content review
    * and content for online course development.

Lecture capture enhances and extends existing instructional activities, whether in face-to-face, fully online, or blended learning environments.



Around the Clock Support for Students and Faculty

The University is committed to providing a student-centered learning environment and outstanding student service. One of the keys is providing anywhere, anytime access to learning, so it's critical that we also offer round the clock support to our students and faculty. To that end, the University has partnered with Embanet ULC to provide a dedicated 24/7/365 toll-free telephone number, live online chat, email and a self-help frequently asked questions support portal for our Angel Learning Management Suite.

Embanet, an integrated, full service provider of online learning services to schools, colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, brings the technical support and student service expertise of a team that has years of experience working with Angel Learning. University technology staff are working closely with Embanet to offer the best possible support experience.

Our new Angel Help Desk portal is available now to our students, faculty and staff.


Teaching and Learning with the Pulse Smartpen

I have been testing the Pulse Smartpen by Livescribe for several weeks now. This amazing device is a computer in a pen that also records audio while you take notes on special "dot paper". What a great way to document notes in a meeting (don't forget to ask permission to record audio) or take notes during a lecture. You can immediately play back the audio by tapping on your hand written notes -- listen using the built-in pen speaker or included ear buds. These special ear buds also have built-in binaural microphones so you can record stereo while you appear to just be listening to music! The pen even has an OLED display that can be used to display the results of calculations you tap out on a printed dot-paper calculator.

Impressive, but there is more. Back at your desk, you dock the pen to recharge and simultaneously sync your hand scribbles and audio to the Livescribe Desktop application on your PC or Mac. The desktop application organizes all your notes and even allows you to search your hand writing to locate a particular passage. Of course, you can play back your audio recordings by clicking your mouse anywhere on the images of your hand written notes.

As an extra bonus, you can share notes and audio with specific individuals or the public by uploading your recording sessions to the Livescribe Online Community site. Students can now take notes during class while recording the audio and share the "pencast" with their classmates -- a student note-taking service for the 21st Century!

To illustrate this new way to teach using a "pencast", I scribbled a concept map on podcasting. The Pulse Smartpen is a great way for faculty to illustrate and animate concepts they used to draw on a blackboard and make it available to students with audio narration. Look for the Pulse Smartpen in the University Bookstore this fall. See and hear my "pencast" demo...


Investing in Academic Technology

The administration of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia has recently committed to investing in e-learning by creating a new Department of Academic Technology. I am honored to serve as the department's new executive director. Besides pulling together a new department, one of my first goals is to help consolidate support services for desktop PCs, academic applications, classroom technology and the learning management system (Angel). We plan to have a new help website established in time for the fall semester featuring live 24/7 help via phone and chat, a new frequently asked questions (FAQ) database and other self-help resources.

Other goals include building a more robust e-learning platform offering more online options that will allow students to learn, study and interact with fellow students and faculty, at any time and any place. Significant new training opportunities will also be made available to help faculty and staff take advantage of new web-based collaboration and teaching tools.

Stay tuned to this space for academic technology news and tips about making the most of the University's online teaching and learning resources.

Rodney B. Murray, Ph.D.
Executive Director of Academic Technology

Dr. Rodney B. Murray, Executive Director of Academic Technology at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, earned his PhD in pharmacology from Temple University School of Medicine. Prior to joining the University, Dr. Murray served as director of application and web services at Thomas Jefferson University, where he was recruited in 1987 to create the Office of Academic Computing and to teach pharmacology in Jefferson Medical College. His leadership brought significant achievements in the areas of instructional technology, knowledge management, application development, and the University’s Internet presence. Dr. Murray is promoting the latest e-learning technologies, including Web 2.0 applications, social media, blogs, wiki's, e-portfolios and podcasts. He has become a recognized expert in this area, producing his own educational podcasts at

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