STEM Is A Piece Of Cake ...

Have you ever baked 30 cakes in a single day? How about doing so in the name of science? Coronado resident and student at City Tree Christian School, Charlotte Birch, has done just that, and in the process became one of 300 middle school students across the nation to be recognized for her scientific process for it.

Have you ever baked 30 cakes in a single day? How about doing so in the name of science? Coronado resident and student at City Tree Christian School, Charlotte Birch, has done just that, and in the process became one of 300 middle school students across the nation to be recognized for her scientific process for it.

The Birch family moved to Coronado last year from Portsmouth, England, and when Charlotte enrolled at City Tree Christian School last October, her class was focusing on their science fair projects. “In England we don’t do science fairs,” Charlotte told me. “To me, it kind of just seems the thing that you see in movies and books…like it was always an exploding volcano with baking soda,” she laughed. But Charlotte, whose favorite subjects are science and math, didn’t hesitate to dive right in.

“At one point I wanted to do a robotics thing,” Charlotte began, “but I came [to City Tree Christian School] in the middle of the science fair so I was thinking of doing [a project] that wouldn’t take too much planning and work because, obviously, there were a lot of due dates that I’d missed since I’d just changed schools.” So she set to work brainstorming an idea that would allow her to complete her project in the time she had left, but be something she wanted to do as well. “[My mom and I] talked about it and I really enjoy baking,” Charlotte started. Her mom, Liz Birch, confirmed, “Yeah, we just said, ‘What do you like doing? Because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it, so what do you enjoy?’”

And what came next was exactly that; baking. A lot of baking. Charlotte, with some help from her family, spent an entire day baking 30 Victoria sponge cakes. “For 10, I used 30 grams of butter; [another] 10, I used 30 grams of margarine, and [the last] 10 I used 15 millimeters of oil,” she explained. “I started baking at 8 a.m. in the morning and didn’t finish until 10 p.m. [at night],” Charlotte recalled.

“Even with your sister doing the washing up,” Liz Birch reminded her. “She wanted to eat the cake.”

“That,” Charlotte agreed, “and I told her that I’d put her in my acknowledgements. ‘I would also like to thank my sister for doing the dishes for me,’” she recited.

Only two pans were used throughout the process to keep variables at a minimum, which was also why all cakes had to be baked on the same day.

Her experiment then led her to measure the height of each sponge cake and compare the three variations for objective differences. “I measured the center of the cake by sticking a toothpick in the middle of the cake and marking it, and then measuring it so I was able to compare how high they rose,” she mentioned.

On a more subjective scale, Charlotte polled her family, her class, and her teachers for preference in taste as well as visual appeal based on blind tests of each of the three cake variations. “I took a bunch of them in to school and everybody tasted a 16th of each cake and told me which one they liked the best in taste, texture, and then I had whole ones for them to judge the appearance,” she said.

The results came as a surprise to Charlotte, who found that overall butter as the fat content created the cake with the least appeal. “So people told me their most preferred and their least preferred taste, texture, and appearance for oil, margarine, and butter,” she explained. “Butter was the least preferred taste, texture, and appearance.”

We expressed our shared surprise at her findings given that many cake recipes tend to call for butter. “The most preferred taste was oil, the most preferred texture was margarine, and the most preferred appearance was margarine,” she continued. “I found that with the appearance, if you liked the margarine appearance then you most often disliked the butter appearance. And if you liked the butter’s appearance, then you didn’t like the margarine’s appearance.”

“But then I was talking to one of my science fair judges, and she was talking about how a cake mix packet actually does call for oil, not butter. She said, ‘They probably did the same research as you did, and found out that people like oil for taste.’” For her own experiment, Charlotte used canola oil for the oil variant.

And while butter wasn’t winning over the hearts of her classmates, there was one place the cakes with butter did excel over the other two. When it came to height test, Charlotte found that, “The butter rose the highest and the margarine rose the least. Oil was in the middle.”

Charlotte presented her results in an online presentation to her class – another difference her family noted between British and American educational practices, public speaking and presentations being more prevalent here at a younger age. “I did [a slide presentation] virtually from home, and mum kept peering around the door,” she recalled.

“I was really excited for her,” Liz Birch defended, as we laughed.

“So I did that, and I won first place in my school’s science fair and I got recommended to go on to the Greater San Diego Science Fair,” Charlotte added. There, she ended up placing first in her category for real-world consumer-based product testing.

The Greater San Diego Science Fair then recommended Charlotte’s work for the nation-wide Broadcom MASTERS competition for middle schoolers. “They look at your project,” Charlotte said, “but they look more at your scientific process in your head.”

Looking at other student’s projects from past Broadcom competitions and the overall Greater San Diego Science Fair winners, she worried her project wasn’t “science-y” enough, involving baking instead of engineering, new AIs or studying the spread of viruses like COVID-19. She needn’t have worried, however, because she became one of just under 2,000 sixth through eighth grade applicants to compete from across the United States. Liz Birch explained that accounted for the top 10% of middle schoolers across the country and when Charlotte was recommended, the family all thought that was amazing, especially have just moved to the States and a new school system. “You’ve got to apply,” Liz Birch had said, “because what have you got to lose?”

As she went through the application process, Charlotte recalled it being very detailed. “They ask you what your hobbies are and what you do.”

Liz Birch explained further, “They gave you more, kind of science questions to understand what your thinking is and what you would do in a [given] situation.” Charlotte gave me an example of one such question, “What would you do if you had a big field of crops and you had a disease killing it?”

After sending her application back to Broadcom, Charlotte was really hoping to get through the selection process where applicants were narrowed down to the top 300 students, but wasn’t expecting it. “I was in my social studies class when mum emailed me saying, ‘You got into the top 300!’, and I was like…oh my god.”

Liz Birch says of the family’s reaction, “We were like, ‘Wow! And for baking cakes, which you love.’ I think it’s nice because it kind of normalizes science a little for everyday people. …We were obviously very proud and mostly, we’re happy that [Charlotte] is happy and thriving.”

Charlotte was overwhelmed knowing that her project was being given such recognition. “In the back of my head I was happy dancing, and then in the front of my head I’m like, ‘What do I do now? I don’t want to disappoint myself if I don’t do as well as I thought I would.’”

The Broadcom MASTERS competition nominated 30 of the 300 students last week to move on as finalists and compete in Washington, D.C. Though Charlotte’s project wasn’t selected for this final stage, she can be proud of her standing among the top percentage of middle school students in the United States for her work, which she received a $125 award for from the Department of Defense STEM.

“At the end of the [school] year, each student’s strengths, you get a certificate for being really strong in that category and I got mine for science,” Charlotte was happy to share with me. She plans to continue to study science as she progresses through school.

Having recently started seventh grade at City Tree Christian School, Charlotte is looking ahead to this year’s science fair and is debating whether to do a continuation of the cake experiment or take a completely different approach. “I was thinking about measuring the fat content in the [butter, margarine, and oil], or maybe doing different types of oil because that was the most preferred overall,” Charlotte considered should she continue with what she’s learned from her first experiment. She’s also been wondering about the results if she had a larger sample size, given that based on her family’s taste tests they thought the cake with oil tasted the sweetest and perhaps with a sample of mostly pre-teens, perhaps the data would be different with a larger amount of adults as taste-testers given that tastes change as one ages. “My parent’s results were different than my classmates, so we’re thinking it’s maybe because we all like sweeter, sugary things.”

She’s also considering the potential benefits to society of studies like these, whether it’s ways to reduce plastic pollution, or ways people with allergies or something like dairy intolerance can still enjoy baking by substituting ingredients. “My overview of it was that I really enjoyed it and I think I did pretty well on it. There’s always going to be a few more variables than you want there to be, I think I did pretty well trying to eliminate those, though.”

And, like any good scientist, Charlotte particularly enjoyed the practical applications of her study. “We ate the rest with whipped cream and there’s still some cake in the freezer. It was fun,” Charlotte said, proving that one can, in fact, have their cake and eat it, too.

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