Learning about food and nutrition is fun. At least, I think it is.
Having taught introductory nutrition for over 25 years, I know students can be challenged by the diversity of topics covered in the class – from food and nutrients, to physiology and biochemistry, studying nutrition can be tricky. But what really makes nutrition challenging, and what originally drew me to a career in nutrition, is the real-world application of nutrition knowledge. People see themselves eating hamburgers and orange juice, not protein and vitamin C.
The idea for what would come to be known as Build-a-Sandwich came to me while attending Angel Day, a technology seminar at Penn State. At Angel Day, I saw a fun, interactive online activity demonstrating how multiple environmental systems impact weather. I wanted to create a similar activity to show students how the food choices they make impact their nutrition. With the help of multimedia specialist Mark DeLuca and instructional designer Elizabeth Pyatt, Build-a-Sandwich was born.
Build-a-Sandwich is a colorful, interactive online activity that operates like a game and is designed to help students learn how real-world food choices impact their overall nutrition. Students create sub sandwiches using a variety of breads, cheeses, meats and toppings similar to what they would find in any given sub shop. After all their selected ingredients are assembled, students’ sandwiches are given a nutritional score. The score can range from 0 to 100 and is based on 10 nutritional criteria: fiber, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron and sodium levels, as well as how many food groups the sandwich contains. A detailed report provides students with information about how the scoring system works. Students can then easily modify their sandwich’s ingredients and see how those modifications impact the nutritional score.
To create Build-a-Sandwich, my team and I interviewed local sub shop owners to obtain information such as the most commonly selected ingredients and portion sizes. A nutritional scoring system was developed, so both positive and negative aspects of a sandwich’s nutrient content would be evaluated. Since every food is composed of a variety of nutrients, the way the nutrients interact in your meal is crucial. The game makes learning about nutrition fun yet challenging by summoning students to try to create a sandwich with a healthy set of nutrients. For example, cheese is high in saturated fat, sodium and calcium. Eliminating cheese from your sandwich improves saturated fat and sodium levels, but worsens the calcium level. Creating a sandwich with an ideal nutrient composition is quite a challenge.
One unanticipated setback to creating Build-a-Sandwich was determining how to use the program effectively in a teaching environment. I wanted the experience to be fun, but I needed it to be gradable. In the end, I was able to create an assignment that incorporated both of those goals. For the assignment, students build three sandwiches. The first is made with set ingredients so there are set answers. The second is made of students’ favorite ingredients so they can see how nutritional their favorite sandwich is. The final sandwich must be within specific range of calories and have a nutritional score of at least 80. Frequently, this requires students to only make small changes, such as adding vegetables to their favorite sandwich.
Ingredients: 12-inch white bread, salami, mayonnaise
Ingredients: 12-inch white bread, american, ham, lettuce, tomato, black olives, mayonnaise, ranch dressing
Ingredients: 12-inch wheat bread, swiss, tuna salad, extra tomato, extra spinach, extra red and green peppers, extra sprouts, horseradish sauce
Students have reacted positively to Build-a-Sandwich. In fact, several students reported spending multiple hours trying to build a sandwich that earned a perfect 100-point nutritional score. Unfortunately for those students, it was discovered the highest attainable nutritional score is 92. The reason for this is that the scoring system is based on actual values and set nutrition standards, not a perfect score. Although this initially seemed to be a flaw, it became a great opportunity to teach students that sub sandwiches with regular ingredients will never meet some recommended standards (such as sodium standards), so it is really up to the individual to make their choices as healthy as possible.
Build-a-Sandwich has been a great tool to help students think broadly about nutrition, to see its relevance in everyday scenarios and to make the challenge of learning about nutrition a bit more fun. ■