Student Soda Scientists

Oak Creek High School’s AP Chemistry classes team up with Black Bear to create a new soda flavor for their final class project.

After teaching Advanced Placement chemistry for about 10 years, Jim Buss decided to challenge his students with a new final project this year.

He had wondered how hard it would be to make a soda, and if it would be possible to make a flavor variation for a class project. Students in two AP chemistry classes have been finding out over the last few weeks in a project that gives them both a college and real-world experience.

With the principal’s approval of the project idea, Buss contacted Black Bear Soda and owner Pete Caruso, who has been a big supporter of Oak Creek schools, to pitch his plan. After several meetings, Black Bear agreed to be a part of the project. 

Since the trend in specialty soft drinks is the development of two flavored sodas, Caruso suggested that the students develop a cherry-vanilla combination. On June 3, each class selected their three best products of all the research groups and made two bottles for Caruso to taste test.

"It’s a really unique opportunity for us to be able to do this for a real company," senior Amanda Weber said. "It’s great exposure to how much work we've done the whole year. It's a nice payoff and we're still putting all of the skills that we’ve learned to good use."

"We were able to do what we wanted instead of having to follow a strict guideline and have to follow that day-by-day," senior Zach Premetz said. "We could base our research off what we’d like to do."

Each group will share their product with school district personnel for a taste-testing on Thursday. Afterward, a spokesperson from each class will give a short presentation on how they arrived at their three final products and the direction the research team took as they worked through it. Caruso will then give a speech and pick the winning product.

Buss’ idea came from his experience working in the food and beverage industry in college. He was also inspired by the United States leading the world in food technology, with food chemistry and sciences being one of the top 20 careers in the next 20 years.

"Because this is the field I want to go into, I’m really glad I got the experience before I go to college and figure out what I’m going to do," senior Tyler Samolinski said.

Black Bear arranged for Buss to work with a flavor scientist in Germantown to learn how to make sodas and how to make the project work for his class. The flavor scientist came up with three vanilla flavored syrups that are complimentary to the stock Black Bear cherry syrup.

"One of our mixes we called 'the mistake' because we mixed random things together and it ended up tasting really good," senior Brennan Wilson said. "And that's how some things happen."

Buss hopes to make the project into an annual tradition and open the taste-testing to the public in future years. A few students are members of the Future Business Leaders of America, and Buss hopes to explore working with the FBLA and Black Bear next fall to create a marketing campaign and possibly put a small run of the winning product into production.

In real life, "the scientists develop the product and the marketing group puts a name and label to it and sells the product," Buss said. "It would be a college-level experience in a high school and a very high-level learning activity for some high-level students."


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