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ISU Veterinarian’s Research is Inspiration for LEGO League Project on Food Safety

Date: 
January 13, 2012
Contacts: 

Tracy Ann Raef, College of Veterinary Medicine, (515) 294-4602 

When the eight-member team of 4-Hers from Plymouth County competes in Saturday’s FIRST Lego League Competition, ISU associate professor and veterinarian H. Scott Hurd and three of his children, will be in the crowd cheering them on.

This year’s competition theme is “Food Factor,” focusing on what it takes to get food safely from farm to table. The Plymouth County team chose pork as their food and identified salmonella as a contamination risk when the raw pork in not handled properly. With their focus narrowed, team members set out to analyze the risk and find a solution. The team didn’t have to go far to find one of the country’s foremost experts on pork safety. An Internet search led them to Dr. Hurd, ISU researcher and veterinarian, and former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The team interviewed Dr. Hurd (and two of his children via video phone) and read his published papers to learn more about salmonella infections in pigs, and accessed Iowa State University’s Food Safety Consortium website. It was through that research that they focused on unclean holding pens as a source for salmonella contamination.

"Prior to talking to Scott, we only knew that the kids wanted to focus on pork but had no idea of what problem to focus on," said Mary Albrecht, one of the coaches for the team. "After talking to him, the team was unanimous that the holding pens would be the place to try to improve."

After selecting the holding pens as the problem to focus on, the team began to search for ways to kill salmonella and other bacteria while the pigs are in the holding pens. The team chose the use of aqueous ozone— ozone bubbles that destroy the bacteria by breaking their cell walls. The team then visited a pork processing company in Sioux Center, Iowa, to see a holding pen up close and to see if the team's idea would be feasible. The findings will be presented to the judges at the competition. Using a brochure and display, the team will tell the story of their quest for a solution to a real-world problem.

"Besides the technical information, Scott provided focus, enthusiasm, and creativity in using Sal and Ella puppets in our Skype conversations to illustrate his points," Albrecht said. "He gave the team the inspiration to concentrate its efforts in this area. "It was great to get access to his research so we could read and paraphrase the scientific papers to the team."

The Lego League research project is kid-driven. The teams decide what to focus on and they research and brainstorm with the coaches to find solutions.

This is the first year that the team has participated in the competition. After winning top honors at a regional competition, the Plymouth County team will now compete against 71 other teams in the statewide competition.

"The kids have learned so much about pork processing, salmonella and ozone," Albrecht said. "The evolution of knowing almost nothing about basic food safety to understanding salmonella and ozone has been amazing. We are grateful for the resources provided by Iowa State University, including the Food Safety Consortium website, and Scott's time, enthusiasm and expertise."

Members of the Plymouth County Team (who call themselves the N.E.R.D.Z. (Navigators of Extreme Robot Device Z)) are:

Ote Albrecht
Kara Albrecht
Morgan Boehme
Chance Irwin
Claudia Probst
Sally Probst
Vivian Zynda
Renae Zynda

Coaches: Mary Albrecht and Nancy Probst

FIRST LEGO League was created by FIRST, a New Hampshire-based, nonprofit organization that promotes exploration of science and technology by young persons aged 9 to 14 years. LEGO Group is the Denmark-based toy manufacturer.