“You didn’t use enough mustard to emulsify it. It almost tastes burnt,” notes Richard Cramm, head chef at University of Waterloo food services. “Wait, you used bacon? I’d like to try that…mmmmm, not bad, you just need a little salt.”

Chef Cramm is standing at the front of the lecture hall, with 120 nanotechnology engineering students eagerly awaiting his professional criticism as he tastes a series of hand-crafted salad vinaigrettes laid out before him. He pours another sample onto a spoon, then promptly swirls it around in his mouth just as any sommelier would with a fine wine.

“Well, it doesn’t taste bad, but maybe for a dessert salad,” he says after he discovers that vanilla protein powder was used in the recipe.

After close to 20 tastings, Cramm declares the winner of The Great Vinaigrette Taste Challenge – Group 1, with team members Benjamin Luft, Graeme Koivu, Eli Bulger, Melanie Lim, and Jing Ya Gao. Their winning entry was, according to Cramm, a well-balanced dressing that featured a touch of maple syrup for sweetness. Upon hearing the results, all of the nanotechnology engineering students rap their desks in approval. Not only have they just completed the bonus component of their assignment, they were the first nanotechnology students to undertake this activity for the newly launched Engineering Ideas Clinic.

Beyond Theory

This real-world experiment, concocted by Dr. Mohit Verma, a nanotechnology engineer at the University of Waterloo, accounts for 10 percent of the final mark of their Introduction to Nanotechnology Engineering course. Working in teams, the students applied theoretical knowledge with practical application with the goal to understand and create an emulsification—which is the exact requirements of a technically well-designed vinaigrette, says Frank Gu, a nanotechnology and chemical engineering professor. Emulsifications are essential in manufacturing and are used extensively in the plastics, oil and gas industry as well as in material synthesis and wastewater treatment. Understanding how they work is critical knowledge for engineers and this Engineering Ideas Clinic activity allows students to grasp the emulsification concept in a new (and fun) way.

Gu also tossed in another ingredient to the mix—the student teams also had to create a video of their experiment to show the class during the competition day. The result was a buffet of talent on display from costumed dramas to mad scientist scenarios revealing the creative and sometimes wacky side of nanotechnology engineering. Rarely do lecture halls reverberate with such enthusiastic laughter as the teams revealed their surprisingly advanced video technology skills and limited acting range.

While Chef Cramm was called into to make the expert decision on taste, Gu’s team of teaching assistants Verma, Tim Leshuk, Sarah LeBlanc, Shah Anjum, and Sandy Liu made the final call on who won the technical portion of The Great Vinaigrette Challenge. The vinaigrette that remained emulsified the longest, thereby displaying mastery of applying theory to practical aspects, would be declared the winner. Gu says it’s precisely this recipe of knowledge combined with hands -on engineering and open-ended experimenting that forms the foundation of the Engineering Ideas Clinic. Here students figure out not just why things work, but actually understand how they work by doing it themselves. As it turns out, the nanotechnology behind emulsification is just a salad dressing away.

Taste test winners.

The “taste test” team winners.

So who won the technical portion of the Great Vinaigrette Challenge? Two teams’ vinaigrette outlasted the rest when it came to emulsification – Group 11 with team members Adrian Sippel Eitzen, Rama Suman Ferguson, Gavin Bradley, Dike Aduluso, and Rhema Makonnen and Group 20 comprised of Seunghyun Song, Vyshakh Sanjeev, Emre Koc, Thomas Stolwick, and Suhash Aravindan.