Target Grade Level / Age Range:



1-2 class periods


This lesson encourages students to think through and engineer a solution to an issue for smaller-scale cheese producers.


  • Access to electronic device with internet access
  • Engineering notebook

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Whey - the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained.
  • There may be other vocabulary based on age group, and research

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

While visiting Frisian Farms in Leighton, Iowa, the owner mentioned that one by-product that he had to deal with was the whey that was left after the cheese making process.  He mentioned that he stores it, and spreads it on his field.  He did say that there is equipment out there to dry it down into whey protein, however; the smallest machine that he found cost $250,000.

Much of this lesson will be based on the student’s research.  Little teacher content knowledge is required, however; a well prepared teacher may do some preliminary research and may need to research student ideas throughout the project.

This lesson, along with part one, could be shortened into as little as 2-3 days.  The teacher could also go into much more detail and talk about all of the science and take 2-3 weeks on this activity.  They could also give students an opportunity to refine their idea/design after the first attempt.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Ask students what they know about cheese production. Have they ever visited a cheese production facility? What do students know about whey?


Objective 1:
  1. Introduction – When visiting Frisian Farms in Leighton, Iowa, the owner discussed, and demonstrated the cheese making process.  Through his explanation, he talked about the left over whey as a waste product.  He said that he currently dumps it into a storage tank, pumps the tank a few times a year, and spreads it on the fields.  He did some research on ways to process this whey into a usable product; however there was not a cost effective solution for a producer his size.
    1. Have students take notes about this situation in their notebooks. Tell them to underline, circle, highlight, or denote key ideas in the situation if it would be helpful to them. Tell them to jot down initial ideas.
  2. Have students research whey, and possible ways to deal with this waste product, taking notes and citing sources. (10 min)
  3. Class discussion on possible ways to deal with whey. (10 min)
  4. The owner at Frisian Farms said that he would like to dry his product down into whey protein, which would make it a valuable product.  When he researched this option, he found that the cheapest machine was $250,000 or he could truck his whey to Wisconsin.  Neither of these were cost effective for the size of his operation.
  5. Use the PowerPoint to walk students through the scenario and discuss the contraints.
  6. As a class, discuss the problem that we are dealing with and constraints.  Have students record the problem and constraints in their engineering notebook.  Divide students into groups of two or three and have them start the problem solving process on this problem.
    1. Give the groups 10 minutes to research and record previous solution attempts.
    2. Give students 15 minutes to brainstorm possible ways to dry down the left over whey into whey protein.
    3. Have students use a decision matrix (instructions and worksheet here: to narrow down their ideas to the solution that they would like to try. (30 min)
  7. Have students write out a procedure, and come up with a list of materials or tools needed to complete their procedure.
    1. While ultimately this exercise is to solve a problem for a small-scale cheese producer, it should be able to be scaled down to allow for possible use within the classroom.
  8. For lower grade level students, this may be a good point to reflect on the project, and consider if their procedure would be viable, or if it would not be cost effective at all.  For higher grade level students, they would go on to testing their ideas, which is outlined in lesson 2.
Objective 2:
  1. Review and discuss what students found in lesson 1.  Make sure to review any safety needed with the equipment that students requested for their procedure.
    1. As a class, decide on a budget that a small-scale cheesemaker might be willing to spend on equipment to dry whey. Have students estimate based on cheese prices and volume. If possible, students could work together to contact a cheesemaker and ask for opinions.
    2. Answer any questions that students may have, and remind students to document all parts of their procedure in the engineering notebook.  Remind them that they may want to take pictures, and take meticulous notes.
  2. Have students research their procedure from lesson 1. Is it cost-effective? Is it safe? Does it meet food safety regulations? Have them list pros and cons of their procedure.
  3. If possible, tell students to follow their procedure that they outlined in their engineering notebook. The teacher should supervise and make sure students are safe, and document their tests.
    1. If not possible to actually build the machines, have students sketch their machine in their engineering notebook. Tell students to research each component for pricing and effectiveness for its role in the machine. I.e.: don’t just say, a ramp leading to a conveyor belt, explain what the ramp is made out of, how large, how much that material costs, etc.
  4. Discuss student outcomes.  Discuss if the cost/speed of reducing whey to whey protein is reasonable.  Could it be scaled up to a level that would be reasonable for a producer the size of Frisian Farms?  What did students learn?
    1. Discuss as a class the different ways students worked to solve the problem. Did someone use a fan? Did any try heat? What inspired their machine? How did they choose materials, energy source, etc.
  5. Have students write a minimum of one paragraph reflection in their engineering notebook.  What went well?  What did not go well?  What would they change next time?  How much time did it take?  What would it cost to do this procedure on a larger scale (time and energy)?
  6. If possible, visit cheese facility or video chat with an owner and share what students came up with.  Get feedback.  If time allowed, it may be worthwhile for students to have contact with these facilities during the entire procedure.

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • Iowa is the 12 th state in total pounds of milk produced.
  • Iowa is 9 th in fluid milk bottling.
  • Iowa is 8 th in total dairy products processed.
  • Iowa is 7 th in number of dairy herds and in cheese production.
  • Iowa is 6 th in cottage cheese production, and American cheese production.
  • Iowa is 4 th in ice cream production.
  • Iowa produced 4.35 billion pounds of milk in 2011.
  • Iowa was home to 204,000 milk cows in 2011.

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Contact a local cheese maker to discuss this problem, and how they manage it. Students could write a report afterward outlining the issue, solutions, and pros and cons from the cheesemaker’s perspective.
  • Go on a field trip as a class to local cheese maker’s operation.
  • Make cheese as a class and attempt to dry the whey using students’ machines.



Taaf Vermeulen

Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Albia Community High School

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Agriculture and the Environment Outcomes
    • T1.9-12.f. Evaluate the various definitions of “sustainable agriculture,” considering population growth, carbon footprint, environmental systems, land and water resources, and economics
  • Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy
    • T2.9-12.b. Compare similarities and differences between organic and inorganic nutrients (i.e., fertilizer) on plant growth and development; determine how their application affects plant and animal life
    • T2.9-12.e. Identify inspection processes associated with food safety regulations
  • Food, Health, and Lifestyle
    • T3.9-12.c. Describe the nutritional value that can be added by processing foods
    • T3.9-12.f. Explain how food production systems are influenced by consumer choices
    • T3.9-12.h. Provide examples of foodborne contaminants, points of contamination, and the policies/agencies responsible for protecting the consumer
  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
    • T4.9-12.e. Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.)
    • T4.9-12.g. Provide examples of how processing adds value to agricultural goods and fosters economic growth both locally and globally
  • Culture, Society, Economy & Geography
    • T5.9-12.d. Describe essential agricultural careers related to production, consumption, and regulation
    • T5.9-12.j. Provide examples of how changes in cultural preferences influence production, processing, marketing, and trade of agricultural products

Iowa Core Standards

  • Science:
    • HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
    • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • Language Arts:
    • 9-10:
      • RST.9-10.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
      • RST.9-10.8: Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem.
      • RST.9-10.9: Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources (including their own experiments), noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts.
    • 11-12:
      • RST.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
      • RST.11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
      • RST.11-21.9: Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
  • 21 st Century Skills:
    • 21.9-12.ES.1: Communicate and work productively with others, incorporating different perspectives and cross cultural understanding, to increase innovation and the quality of work.
    • 21.9-12.ES.2: Adapt to various roles and responsibilities and work flexibly in climates of ambiguity and changing priorities.
    • 21.9-12.ES.3: Demonstrate leadership skills, integrity, ethical behavior, and social responsibility while collaborating to achieve common goals.
    • 21.9-12.ES.4: Demonstrate initiative and self-direction through high achievement and lifelong learning while exploring the ways individual talents and skills can be used for productive outcomes in personal and professional life.
    • 21.9-12.ES.5: Demonstrate productivity and accountability by meeting high expectations.
    • 21.9-12.TL.1: Demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
    • 21.9-12.TL.3: Apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
    • 21.9-12.TL.4: Demonstrate critical thinking skills using appropriate tools and resources to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions.

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