Village Project and Harvest Table find new recipe for teaching math skills

A partnership between Elon University’s It Takes a Village Project and the Harvest Table Culinary Group has included an innovative approach that incorporates cooking into helping students understand mathematical concepts.

Middle grades students from the Village Project prepare recipes during a Dec. 5 event in Alumni Gym that was a partnership with Harvest Table Culinary Group. 
Gathered in groups around tables full of ingredients and paired with several chefs from Harvest Table Culinary Group, middle school students in the Village Project assembled what they needed to make bean soup, cornbread and chocolate cake. With measuring cups and containers, the students prepared the recipes to take home to prepare and enjoy with their families.

This was not your typical math class.

But that’s exactly what the Dec. 5 event in Alumni Gym for students in the It Takes a Village Project was. The semester-ending event was the culmination of a partnership this fall between the Project and Harvest Table, a division of Aramark that provides dining and catering services at Elon.

​Formed in response to lagging test scores for many middle schoolers in the project, the new math approach for students in the It Takes a Village Project is using cooking to teach real-world math skills.

“It’s a holistic approach where you’re able to put real-life experiences on top of what they are already learning,” said Tammy Ford, who teaches eighth grade at Turrentine Middle School in Burlington and works with middle grade students in the Village Project.

An initiative of Elon’s Center for Access and Success, the It Takes a Village Project pairs Elon student tutors with students at all levels of elementary and secondary school to help them achieve academic success. The project was launched to help improve reading skills among younger Alamance County students, and has expanded to include K-12 students and offers assistance on a broader range of subjects. More than 150 Elon students were joined by about a dozen ABSS teachers this semester in working with the Village Project students each week. 

Like the launch of the It Takes a Village Project, the new math skills initiative is a response to the needs of the community, and an expansion of the innovative partnerships that make the project possible, said Jean Rattigan-Rohr, director of the Center for Access and Success.

​“This past summer we noticed that the math proficiency levels for some children in the county were quite low,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “We decided to pivot from reading, which has been a big area of emphasis, to focus exclusively on math this fall for our middle grades students.”

Harvest Table has been providing meals to Village Project students when they are on campus on Wednesday afternoons, and a discussion about different food options evolved into brainstorming about how to use cooking as a medium for teaching math skills. Measuring, fractions, weights, scaling recipes up or down are all skills that are essential in both math and cooking, so this experiential learning component would certainly underscore what middle-school students are learning in their math classes.

“The Harvest Table team just took the idea when their regional director, Laura Thompson, proposed it to them and ran with it from there,” Rattigan-Rohr said.

As a division of Aramark, Harvest Table Culinary Group is focused on more local connections, such as local sourcing for ingredients as well as stronger connections to the community, Thompson said. Working with the Village Project to develop recipes for the students to practice with in their math classes during the semester, and helping produce the grand finale for the semester in Alumni Gym was a natural fit for Harvest Table’s mission, she said.

​​“We have all the tools to do it,” Thompson said. “Our team wants to be more involved in things like this. It adds another dimension to their day.”

Gathered in Alumni Gym with the middle school students who have been working with Harvest Table recipes all semester were 175 K-5 students who are also involved in the Village Project. These younger students, with their parents and other family members looking on, learned about nutrition with a program led by Dietitian Amanda Cerra that included taste tests of fruits and vegetables and other nutritional education programming. They were also provided with canvas bags and at the end of the night, they filled them with fresh fruits and vegetables from a farmer’s market to take home with them.

​The middle and high school students at their tables full of ingredients were led by Harvest Table Executive Chef Jay Vetter, who talked each group of students through the process of how to prepare each dish as they gathered and measured out the ingredients they would take home with them.

“For me, food is a part of family,” Vetter told the group. “We want you to take this experience home to your family.”

Rattigan-Rohr said, “When you have a student struggling with something over and over again, taking a different approach can be very helpful, We are  looking forward to seeing the impact this  experiential learning component has on the middle school students’  math scores.