Food science

As the world’s population surpasses 9 billion in the next 40 years, focusing on alternative systems of food production and preservation is both timely and critical for sustainability and citizen science research. Broadly speaking, food science is a study of preservation, selection, storage, and distribution of food. Our research examines everyday food science practices as deliberate alternatives to top-down production of both food and knowledge. We focus on bottom-up, sustainable food practices as a form of amateur science. Through fieldwork, workshops, and speculative design workshops, we examine how everyday science expertise is scaffolded, and how bottom-up food science practices operate outside of mainstream systems.

Everyday food science

Focusing on food as a platform for everyday science, we are working with practitioners who routinely experiment with preserving, fermenting, brewing, pickling, foraging for, and healing with food. We engage with these at-home science initiatives as community-driven efforts to construct knowledge and envision alternatives to top-down modes of production. Our work includes:

  • In-situ fieldwork with practitioners who routinely experiment with homemade beer, fermented vegetables and fruit, foraged grasses, kombucha and kefir, livestock, and human placenta (as a dietary supplement), to name a few.
  • Workshops in our design studio, including a hands-on session whereby participants and researchers collaboratively made kefir, kombucha, and flavored sauerkraut; as well as a co-authoring workshop, which resulted in a journal publication co-authored by the researchers and participants.
  • CHI’16 workshop that brought together a diverse group of HCI researchers, food practitioners, artists, and scientists to engage with alternative food systems through hands-on work.

Above all, this work shows that through its long tradition of experimenting and tinkering, at-home food science engages with many issues that are critical for sustainable HCI: food preservation and security, human health and nutrition, and everyday scientific literacy, among others. Our study of these practices reveals complex hybrid lay-professional knowledge and the iterative mechanisms by which food science expertise is scaffolded. Materials and time play a key role in both the adoption and rejection of food science projects, and we suggest that these themes are productive touchpoints for interaction design.

Our follow-up work is conducting co-design workshops with practitioners to envision and develop technologies for alternative food systems. Our hands-on activities with food, as well as critical reflection, and design exercises serve to envision new systems for food preservation and security, human health and nutrition, and everyday scientific literacy.

Solar cooking

Our world is projected to heat up and experience more extreme heat waves over the next few decades, presenting new challenges for human health and economy. We focus on solar cooking as a set of creative DIY activities that embody both adaptation—by utilizing natural heat and alleviating economic impact of AC bills, and mitigation—reducing electric/gas energy consumption. Yet, while solar cooking is more affordable and less resource-intensive than indoor cooking, it has not been widely adopted by maker or food science communities, even in our city where temperatures regularly exceed 110F. This paper examines how design can support DIY solar cooking as a form of sustainable everyday food science. Our work includes:

  • a summer-long diary study of extreme heat, which examined how human lives are affected by by heat in Phoenix, AZ and the adaptive strategies people take on to improve resiliency.
  • a summer-long solar cooking study, whereby participants designed their own solar cookers from low-cost materials and prepared foods ranging from slow-cooked pork and chicken to bread, kale chips, brownies, beef jerky, and fruit rollups.

Our findings show that solar cooking was iterative, creative, and fun for participants. However, a lack of information resources and the logistics of planning and solar cooking are major challenges. Our current work is exploring the design challenges and opportunities for wider adoption of solar cooking. We are examining two directions: 1) easy-to-use solar oven design; and 2) interactive knowledge-sharing platforms. We believe that such systems can engage people in solar cooking as a habitual practice and initiate broader dialogues around extreme heat.