In the Wonderland of Taste and Smell – Children Discover Sensory Science

Dr. Kostyra
Dr. Kostyra explaining the Sensory Lab to 13-year-old pupils.
Hands-on-training on sample preparation
Hands-on-training on sample preparation
evaluation in sensory booths
... and evaluation in sensory booths
The girls and boys are highly interested and fully concentrated.
The girls and boys are highly interested and fully concentrated.

April 2013 - At the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, children and youngsters from different age groups are given a “taste” of what sensory research is all about. Since 2010, the sensory laboratory at the Faculty for Nutrition and Consumer Research (a member of the European Sensory Network), has offered special courses for 6 to 7 and 12 to 13 year-olds. Laboratory director Dr. Eliza Kostyra explains how this has awoken the children’s interest in the subject.

Dr. Kostyra, how did you come up with the idea of giving children a look into your work?

Kostyra: Our program was established in cooperation with the Polish Children’s University, a non-profit organization that offers modern university-based extended education programs in various areas of science. Since real-life experiences are especially important for children, it makes sense to give them a look into our research area, since our theme is an exciting one – and not just for the kids.

How do you present your research to the children?

Kostyra: That depends on their age. For the younger age group of 6 to 7 year-old “explorers”, we first give a 10 min. introductory presentation about sensory science using pictures that are appropriatefor the age group. This is followed by some easy sensory exercises that the children enjoy doing. They are encouraged to try to recognize basic tastes in a water solution, to identify familiar food odours, to compare and to describe sounds when eating various foods (e.g. banana and apple). They learn which products are soft and which are hard, for example. Children are interested in experiencing all these sensations by themselves. Some of them even want to repeat the tasks.

The aim of the program is to make children more aware of the senses, their role in eating, as well as the sensory properties of various foods and drinks. This may contribute to the decrease of neophobic tendencies and develop healthy eating habits.

And for the 12 to 13 year-olds?

Kostyra: The workshop for the teenagers between the ages of 12 and 13 years is titled “The Human Senses as a Universal Analytical Instrument”. It is formulated under the concept of “teacher and student”, and consists of several lectures explaining what role the human senses play in everyday life. The participants learn to evaluate food quality and safety. Other sensory phenomena are also investigated. For instance, how sensitive and specific are the human senses when you compare them to analytical instruments? What role does sensory memory, emotion, and food preferences play in the choices madeby consumers?

These lectures are combined with practical laboratory tests performed in the Sensory Lab. Here, the teenagers are shown how to prepare and serve samples, how the computerized system of sensory tests works, and how to evaluate preliminary results.

They participate in tests that check their sensory sensitivity, as well as evaluate sensory differences in various products including fruit juices, yoghurts etc. They learn how to interpret the resultsobtained from these tests, and how to prepare a summary in the form of a “mini-presentation”. We also involve the children in the preparation of differently flavoured and coloured master-batch model drinks.

How often do the children come to your laboratory?

Kostyra: The groups of younger children only come once.
For the older kids there are four to five two-hour workshops that usually take place at two to three week intervals. The courses take place on Saturdays in university classrooms and laboratories.

Once every year your sensory laboratory also takes part in a science festival for children.

Kostyra: Yes, this „Research Fair“ takes place in the auditorium of the Technical University’s main building. There are workshops on various areas of science, and is geared towards children between theages of four and eight. Our sensory workshops are called “In the wonderland of taste and smell”. Here the children take part in such sensory memory tasks as taste and odour recognition tests, and they match odours with pictures of common fruits or vegetables. They can also mark their degree of liking of each of the 6 presented odours on a simple mimic hedonic scale.

Other tests focus on multi-sensory experience. Various kinds of common fruits and vegetables are presented and the kids are asked to give their names, colours, shapes, and types of surfaces (e.g. smooth versus rough, shiny versus dull).  In a separate test, the children are asked to identify the same fruits and vegetables using only touch and smell.

Another test aims at matching colours with the appropriate flavours. Each child receives nine drinks. Three drinks are coloured red, three yellow, and three green. The drinks are then flavoured by three different aromas, strawberry, orange, and mint. The children are asked to point to the drinks in which the colour and aroma match.

Children find these kinds of tests interesting and have a lot of fun doing them. Fulfilling all the sensory tasks keeps them busy for 15 to 20 minutes. Every year about 100 children take part in the science festival. The children’s brothers and sisters also often want take part in our tests. Even the parents occasionally ask to join in.

If you are interested in more information please contact:

Dr. Eliza Kostyra
Warsaw University of Life Sciences (WULS-SGGW)
Faculty of Human Nutrition and Consumer Sciences
Warsaw, Poland