Scent & Taste

In January, for the first time ever our Science Explorers Club investigated “senses” – in particular, scent and taste.

We began a program with a brief introduction to how important scent/smell is to how we ultimately taste food. I presented all scientists with a simple diagram to show how sensors in our nose AND attached to taste buds on the tongue all send signals to the same area of our brain. Interestingly, that area of our brain also interestingly connects to our memories. [This explains why some smells remind us of specific memories/events!].

We began the night with a blindfolded taste-test challenge using Skittles candies. [Inspiration for this challenge came from the Little Passports blog article, “Does Smell Affect Taste?”]

Materials/Supplies:

  • Blindfolds (I made blindfolds from sheets of fleece fabric we had in our supplies)
  • Skittles, original flavor – you will need to sort by color/flavor before you do the exercise with a group
  • Small cups (like Dixie cups)
  • Plates (to place under the cups, just in case any food spills out of the cup)
  • Flavor flashcards (see inset image below)
Flashcards created in Microsoft Publisher

Each scientist was given a handmade blindfold and a series of flash cards with all Skittles flavors represented (grape, green apple, strawberry, orange and lemon). CHALLENGE ONE: I asked each scientist to sample flavors one-by-one, while blindfolded. We did five rounds, one round for each Skittles flavor. At the end of each round, I asked each scientist to hold up the flash card that represented the flavor they thought they just tasted. Remarkably, our scientists did a pretty good job of identifying flavors. The trickiest flavors were orange and lemon, because those “citrus” flavors tastes very similar.

CHALLENGE TWO. I next asked each scientist to hold their noses closed while also trying to guess a random Skittles flavor of my choice. Most scientists accurately guessed the flavor, though it was likely due to the fact that they eventually unplugged their noses while they were still chewing the candy. [When their noses were plugged closed, they had trouble tasting much of anything – it was like the candy had no flavor.]

CHALLENGE THREE. Our final Skittles challenge asked each scientist to hold a cotton ball doused with peppermint oil under their noses, while still blindfolded, and guess a specific Skittle flavor. To most, the candies tasted more like peppermint than their actual flavor.

All scientists discovered how important it is to be able to use both their nose AND mouth to determine flavor. FINAL CHALLENGE: We rounded out our evening with a fun team challenge. I divided our room into two groups. I had prepared, in advance, a large selection of food samples – fruits, veggies, snack foods, breads/pastries – that I then challenged the scientists to guess in our final Taste Test Challenge. One scientist from each team was brought up for each “heat” for a one-on-one battle of taste-testing. Most scientists found this difficult because unlike our Skittles challenges with a limited number of flavors/guesses, the sky was the limit for guessing with my platters of random samples – they might get a piece of lemon, or an Oreo cookie! In the future, I think I would simplify this final challenge by identifying a shared category of food for certain heats – for example, “fruits” or “snack foods” – instead of randomly selecting items from any category for each round. We did taste test challenges until it was time for everyone to go home.

Even though there was no take-home project with January’s theme, all of our scientists had great fun learning about how interconnected scent and taste are via the program challenges.

NOTE: I always like to test science kits from the stores to see if they are useful/fun for my programs. I found a kit called “Stinky Science Lab” and gave it a shot as a side demonstration in my program. I put a sample of room-temperature tuna salad inside secret dome #3. The scientists then had to stick their noses in the orange smell tube and squeeze the red air pump to try and guess the secret scent wafting to their noses. The scientists definitely had fun guessing the super stinky mystery scent. Overall, I thought the kit was okay for home science fun, but was two finicky to use in multiple ways during a program.