ketching-up in STEM class

It’s the end of the day at Mt. Lebanon High School, and students haven’t yet begun to arrive for today’s wildlife biology and environmental geoscience class with Rob Bergstresser. The room is covered in life forms. On the left side is a kitchen cart turned miniature greenhouse, several large, green leafy plants and terrariums perched on nearly every surface available, other than the students’ desks. On the right side are even more terrariums, stacked three shelves high, each with its own little world inside. Bergstresser says this is the second semester of this class’ existence, and a big part of what he’s trying to do is bridge the disconnect between classrooms and real life. “Some students are gardening for the first time,” he says, and lists potatoes and green beans as vegetables they’ve had the chance to grow. A few feet away stands Lindsey Selker, an associate marketing manager for H. J. Heinz Company, who’s here today to talk to the students about something important: ketchup.

More specifically, how Heinz makes ketchup with sustainable food principles in mind, and why it’s important.

Selker begins with a discussion of “corporate social responsibility” and she elaborates by projecting photos of farms and tomato plants onto the wall. Heinz goes quite the distance, she explains, by using cage free eggs, sustainable palm oil to prevent over farming the land, and most importantly, using HeinzSeed, a unique breed of GMO-free tomatoes engineered to become ketchup. As part of their sustainable efforts, Selker says, they’re also attempting to grow naturally sweeter tomatoes to reduce the amount of sugar that goes into the finished product.

P1010331The presentation explains why sustainable food is a priority for Heinz, citing improved customer relations and a sustainable supply chain as a few motivators for the company. Selker is enthusiastic about the ways Heinz pursues corporate responsibility. She’s been with the company for a year a half and grew up in Pittsburgh, graduating from Canon-McMillan High School. “I’m really excited about the new initiatives.” She also occasionally works with Tazeen Chowdhury, the food services director for Mt. Lebanon School District, to test new products and get a critical eye on what potential issues cafeterias face serving the new foods.

The talk isn’t to sell students on the superiority of Heinz ketchup; as Pittsburghers, they likely need no persuasion. The purpose is to connect students to a real-life application of what they’re learning in class. It’s part of the new Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy, from which students can earn a certificate and find themselves more prepared for those fields. Bergstresser’s class is one of the courses students can take towards the certificate.

P1010335The students pass around a bag of dehydrated meal made of rice and soy, and fortified with vitamins and nutrients. Heinz also sponsors a nonprofit, Stop Hunger Now, and provides meals for schools and orphanages in developing countries around the world. It’s one of the several ways Heinz gives back. Selker has also brought the students HeinzSeed; they’ll grow their own tomatoes, too.

Students are interested and volunteer a few questions, but the clock creeps ever closer to the end of the day and when the bell rings, kids head for the door. They’re one school day closer to graduation, college and eventually, a job, but hopefully they’re also one small step ahead–and ready.