A science lab at East Grand Rapids Middle School carried the distinctive aroma of sushi recently when it was briefly transformed into an experimental kitchen.
Students in Pete Miller’s Food, Travel & Culture class held their own version of the Food Network’s TV show “Chopped Junior” to test their first-time sushi-making skills.
As a live audience of classmates cheered them on — and offered suggestions such as “Don’t forget the broccolini!” and “Put the rice on the rough side, not the shiny side” — the four students selected to compete chopped scallions, seeded cucumbers, sliced raw tuna, rolled seaweed, placed pickled ginger and squirted artful dollops of spicy mayo and unagi sauce.
Judges were science teacher Becky Martin, yoga teacher Rebecca Dietz, and Jordan Plumstead, an EGRHS senior who as a middle schooler was a contestant on Chopped Jr.’s first season (episode 4, with Martha Stewart as a judge).
Entries including Kersten Sykes’ dragon roll with sriracha aioli, Cam Valdez’s pescatarian and vegetarian towers, and Sam Bragg’s uramaki were rated on ingredients, presentation and taste.
“I would have really liked this class,” Jordan said to Miller before the tasting began. And afterward: “They were really impressive, especially for doing it for the first time.”
This is the second year the middle school has offered a Food, Travel & Culture exploratory class. The trimester class includes travel and culture videos such as the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” and mapping dives into various cultures that this semester include Japan, Iran and Vietnam.
In addition to Food, Travel & Culture, other new exploratory classes include yoga; an art offering that includes printmaking, design and drawing; net games such as tennis and pickleball; and sports officiating.
A climate and culture survey of students a few years ago prompted teachers to recommend a wider variety of elective offerings. A switch two years ago to a trimester calendar created new slots in the schedule for more exploratory experiences.
“The academic rigor is so high that for a lot of these students, their schedules don’t leave any time for them to explore anything extra they’re interested in,” Miller said. “In this class, at the beginning of the trimester there are a lot of kids who haven’t really touched a real knife before and been taught to actually use one properly.”
Miller also teaches two units of seventh grade geography, two units of eighth grade U.S. history and an outdoor living elective that includes nature journaling, fishing, survival skills and geocaching — essentially, an outdoor treasure hunt.
“One of my favorite parts (of Food, Travel & Culture) is their final project, when they identify a meal they will cook from scratch for their family,” he said. “How it turns out is not the grade; it’s that they take the steps to make it happen.”