How Food Can Be a Cultural Bridge to Enhance Student’s STEM Identity and Learning Outcomes

Dr. Hengchun Ye professional photo
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Hengchun (Haley) Ye, Ph.D.
Dean of Graduate Studies
California State University, Stanislaus
Professional headshot of Dr. Mica Estrada
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Mica Estrada, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Institute for Health & Aging
University of California, San Francisco

Caption: Students show off their work in Dr. Hengchun Ye’s math and coding workshop series. (Photo Credit: NASA DIRECT-STEM at Cal State LA)

“Good morning students, now it’s time for us to nominate and vote for a culturally diverse food for lunch during our next workshop.”  This was the routine at the beginning of our full-day workshop while our pre-trainee students were eating their breakfast in a large classroom at Cal State LA.

The Impact of Food on STEM Learning in a Case Study of DIRECT-STEM’s Extra-Curricular Activity

Knowing that some of our students may be food-insecure at home, the first thing I do when starting our workshop is to ensure they are well-fed. Students participate in a bi-weekly Saturday math and coding workshop series for an academic year which is a part of a myriad of NASA Data Intensive Research and Education Center for STEM (DIRECT-STEM) activities at Cal State LA.  This workshop aims to provide our undergraduate (all levels) students of color and those from underserved communities with an opportunity to develop and enhance the quantitative reasoning and computational skills that are critical for STEM research and beneficial to STEM degree completion.  In addition, the program aims to enhance our students’ sense of belonging and STEM identity by building a supportive learning community.

To achieve this additional aim at the beginning, I set off to find some interesting, nutritious food that would fit our budget. Cal State LA is located on the east side of Los Angeles. There are hundreds of family-owned affordable culturally diverse restaurants within two miles of our campus, so I decided to order food from these places as part of a cultural experience for our students (“food around the world”) to encourage an appreciation for the diversity of cultural heritage in our community. What I did not anticipate was that the festivity of the food would create magic to make this workshop so popular it necessitated increasing our capacity from 25 for year one to 92 in year five (and we had to turn away another 30 applicants due to the classroom capacity limit). The percentage of students of color or from underrepresented groups steadily increased from 68% to 92% during the same period. Was it the food having such a big impact, I wondered?

A large classroom of diverse students look towards the front of the room as they participate in Dr. Ye's summer workshop program.

The math and coding workshop series became so popular that the program had to increase capacity from 25 student in year one to 92 students in year five. (Image Credit: NASA DIRECT-STEM at Cal State LA)

Workshop survey comments in which students responded to open-ended question of “what did you like best about today’s workshop?” repeatedly mentioned the food.  A few examples:

“The food and learning about sequence and series.”


“Nice people, amazing food, good concepts to learn.”


“Python (a coding language) and food.”


“I love meeting all the people in the STEM field and I love the food…”

Students also often mentioned to us in casual conversation that they were looking forward to our Saturday workshops because they enjoyed the food, friendship, and learning data analysis and Python coding. The survey results and comments made me increasingly aware that the food was creating a cultural bridge, bringing out students’ festive spirit that reminds them of family gatherings and makes them happy. Any person walking by (during lunch time) could see that students were heavily engaged in the discussion about food from their culture and made comparisons with foods from other cultures they were sampling.

This is the moment I realized perhaps food is not peripheral to creating inclusive learning environments, but can be central to its formation.

In addition, we have had very impressive outcomes from our student participants. Alumni surveys indicated that 73% of the students who finished our one-year workshop series subsequently participated in undergraduate research in their faculty labs, internships, or Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs across the country.  Student responses from our survey on the first day of our workshop, showed that 56% were “somewhat confident” or “very confident” they would finish their STEM degree. The same survey question at the end of this 1-year workshop showed that 96% were “somewhat confident” or “very confident”about finishing their STEM degree, a significant increase.

Bring Food to Higher Education STEM Curriculum

Smiling students take salads and sandwiches from a table.

Students enjoying food provided for the summer workshop series. (Photo Credit: NASA DIRECT-STEM at Cal State LA)

Beyond providing food for students, which may be meeting fundamental needs and creating opportunity for conversation and sharing with others, food can also be a teaching material, which can be adopted to many science courses as we know that “without science, food as we know it would not exist.”1 Many innovative STEM curriculums have used kitchen cooking and school gardens as hands-on learning tools1,2 including the Food, Math, and Science Teaching Enhancement Resources (FoodMaster) initiative3.  There are many existing examples of how to use food preparation, ingredients, preservation techniques, safety, nutrition, etc. as a subject in teaching STEM courses in K-12 schools. For example, the FoodMASTER Initiative was created in 2005 as a National Institute of Health Science Education Partnership Award Project. Food can be used to teach basic research methods in microbiology, chemistry, biology, nutrition, health sciences and mathematics3 which can be adopted for higher education courses (see Table 1). I used to teach a course called Physical Environment and Food Customs for many years when I was a faculty member. In this class, students examined the importance of a natural geographical environment to the creation of a particular cuisine in a particular geographical region. They were required to bring a dish that was related to their research to share during their final research presentation. Many students chose a family recipe that had been passed down from generation to generation for their research projects to understand the link between their food and culture. They were very engaged in the classroom discussions and there were rarely any absences during the semester. They gained a deep understanding of the natural world, of diverse climate regimes and their vulnerability to anthropogenic change. The quality of their papers were much better than in any other courses I have taught. This demonstrates that food could be a effective tool to teach STEM for better learning outcomes amongst our diverse students.

Suggestions for embedding diverse food themes in STEM courses.

Table 1: Suggestions for embedding diverse food themes in STEM courses.

Use Food as a Cultural Asset to Create an Inclusive Learning Pathway

Eager students line up to enjoy trays of rice, beans, and chicken.

Student’s line-up to taste and discuss the day’s cultural cuisine. (Photo Credit: NASA DIRECT-STEM at Cal State LA)

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) makes an effort to legitimize all cultures5-7 as asset-based pedagogies.8 It gives students the space to take ownership of their cultural heritage and encourages them to value and maintain this heritage with pride.9 Culturally relevant teaching takes many forms. Adopting academic materials that reference students’ home lives and culture helps them relate to the curriculum. Naturally, using food as a cultural asset seems to be a very effective form of CRT, because food and culture are inseparable. The foods people eat tell a story about who they are and from where they come. To learn a culture, food is instinctual and essential.10 People have recognized the power of food to bridge cultural divides and strengthen students’ learning experiences. For example, a teacher at Crawford High School in San Diego used multicultural dishes to study science to bridge cultural divides.11

Research shows that human connections and support are strong predictors of student integration and persistence in STEM fields,12,13 which is very important for students to develop a STEM identity, which increases motivation, persistence, and academic performance.14 Connecting learning materials to multicultural food may help diverse students feel they have relevant knowledge to contribute to the learning community, and thus more engaged, and interested in learning STEM subjects. My observation was that sharing and/or talking about food leads to happy storytelling about families and cultural heritage, which encourages bonding and cultivates a sense of belonging and STEM identity, which translates to enhanced STEM learning outcomes (Figure 1).

Food is practical and relatively simple to incorporate, yet it can potentially have a significant impact on our students’ academic success.

A figure showing the impact of food culture on student engagement. The figure shows ascending steps showing how ideas build off each other. Step 1: Food as a symbol of a cultural heritage. 2. Create happiness bonding & inclusive learning environments. 3. Develop sense of belonging & STEM identity. 4. Academic Persistence & Success.

Figure 1: The impact of food culture as a way to engage student-centered learning through culturally relevant practices.


The author would like to thank NASA MIRO for funding DIRECT-STEM which has impacted over 400 unique students of color and/or from underrepresented groups. The author also expresses her gratitude to Dr. Mica Estrada for her guidance and ideas and Jennifer Carinci’s comments that greatly improved this article.