WALLA WALLA -- Gail Redberg held a dime-sized magnet between her fingers, and slowly moved it over crumbled cereal flakes on a plate.
As if by magic, a small piece jumped up from the plate and clung to the magnet. Far from magic, the trick was simply science at work, displaying the reality of iron content in breakfast cereal.
Redberg, a science teacher at Prescott Junior Senior High School, was among 11 middle school teachers participating in science lessons at Whitman College through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. The workshops are meant to enhance classroom instruction while boosting science knowledge and understanding among teachers. HHMI is a nonprofit medical research organization that awards grants to individuals and institutions to support science research and learning, according to its website.
Mary Burt, coordinator of the Whitman program, said the $800,000 grant is being used in part to fund lessons for area teachers over three years. Teachers from area middle schools are invited to participate in three half-day workshops put on throughout the year, and a more in-depth session over a week each summer. The program is now in its second year serving area teachers.
Based on local need, middle school science teachers were selected as the target participants of the grant, Burt said.
"We've really been focusing on middle school teachers because that's where we heard from districts there was a need," she said.
The recent workshop explored "The Science of Food," and was taught by Mark Juhasz, assistant professor of chemistry at Whitman.
Juhasz covered many aspects of science and food, like the oxidation of food as molecules react with oxygen; the genetically-modified food movement; and recent advances in food and science. Juhasz talked about how hamburger can now be grown in labs without the need of an animal -- just animal cells.
Juhasz also briefly discussed the science behind the China infant formula scandal, where the chemical compound melamine was added to baby formula to give the appearance of protein. The illusion came from melamine's high nitrogen make-up, a characteristic shared with protein-rich food.
The classroom lesson concluded to allow time in the lab to conduct student-friendly experiments.
Redberg was surprised to see the cereal lift under the magnet, thanks to tiny iron fragments that are incorporated in breakfast cereals to boost mineral intake.
Redberg, a middle and high school science teacher, said her students would likely get a kick out of the experiment.
"I think they'll enjoy seeing their food respond in that manner," she said.
Participants were also asked to set food on fire to see if its flame would at all raise the temperature of water in a beaker.
Using paper clips bent straight and stuck in bottle corks for a better grip, the teachers speared a marshmallow, a piece of oat cereal, and a peanut, one at a time, and let them burn.
Julie Brinson, a teacher at Assumption Catholic School, found that half a peanut burned intensely and raised the temperature of her water by about 5 degrees. The marshmallow and cereal piece each only shifted the temperature about 1 degree higher.
"A lot of oil in it," Brinson said about the peanut. "A lot of fat."
Brinson, who teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders at Assumption, said she has come to all of the institute's classes since it was first offered last year.
"It increases my own personal knowledge, so I have a better understanding to relate to my students," she said.
In another experiment, Shannon Jones massaged the iron-rich dry cereal in a bag with water. As the mixture turned smooth, she let the bag lie flat and set the magnet on top. Tiny black particles lifted out of the mass and to the magnet, and were clearly visible through the plastic bag.
Jones teaches sixth and eighth-grade science at Pioneer Middle School, and was joined by several coworkers.
Dennis Bennett, an eighth-grade science teacher at Pioneer, said discovering iron in the cereal was interesting, but not alarming.
"You need the iron," he said. "It's better than eating a nail."