UNIVERSITY PARK – Making ice cream in January may seem counter-intuitive — with highs averaging 32 degrees and lows averaging just 18 in Happy Valley — but it’s tradition. In 1892, the Pennsylvania State College offered a dairy manufacturing class during the winter “when farm work is least pressing and the boys can best be spared.”
The ice cream section of that original dairy manufacturing class became so popular that it was spun off in 1925 — the original Ice Cream Short Course. Over the 119 years of ice cream programs, more than 4,500 students from 49 states in the union and every continent (except Antarctica) have studied at Penn State.
This course, held Jan. 8-15 this year, is the oldest, best-known and largest educational program dedicated to the science and technology of ice cream making. It is also believed to be the first continuing-education course in the United States.
But a course covering one of America’s favorite desserts must cover serious ground. “This course is not aimed at the casual hobbyist, but at people who are interested in the science and technology of industrial ice cream manufacture,” explained Robert Roberts, associate professor of food science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“We gear it toward personnel involved in production and quality control, research and development, and general management.”
While the course targets the workers in the industrial ice cream manufacturing industry, “our aim isn’t that good,” noted Roberts, the short course instructor. “In addition to the people who work in that industry, we’ll also have doctors and lawyers and hairdressers — people from all walks of life who want to start an ice cream business or just learn about ice cream. We really reach a wide range of people.”
The scope is so broad that the course roster, capped at 130 students, filled last November, with 60 on the waiting list by New Year’s Day. “I’m not sure why interest and enrollment is so much higher this year, but it’s exciting,” said Roberts. This year’s students hail from 26 states and nine countries across four continents.
In 2004, responding to the popularity of the intensive, seven-day short course, Penn State first offered “Ice Cream 101: Introduction to Frozen Desserts.” This weekend course, to be held Jan. 29-30, is geared toward entrepreneurs and others who want to learn about running an ice cream shop, yet who don’t need as much in-depth training, explained Roberts. Registrations for this year’s Ice Cream 101 are also up.
While several other universities offer ice cream programs, the scope of Penn State’s is what sets it apart. “We bring in lots of different instructors and assistants,” said Roberts. “Twenty-five people will be presenting during the course, while another 25 will be working behind the scenes, helping it happen.”
This year’s course expands on working with nonstandardized products — the ice cream-like varieties that don’t meet the government requirements of fats and solids to be called ice cream. Instead, these often low-fat or “diet” products are referred to as “frozen desserts.” “We’ll discuss the different ingredients and flavorings that can be used when creating these increasingly popular products,” said Roberts.
The course’s long, storied history means its list of graduates reads like a “Who’s Who” of the ice cream industry. Ben and Jerry famously got their start in the ice cream business by first taking Penn State’s ice cream short course. “We give students a full experience — the best we can in seven days,” Roberts said.
“The course teaches the fundamentals and nuances of commercial ice cream manufacture, including production, quality control, and research and development trends. We cover everything from the cow to the cone.”
While enrollment is above average this year, the ice cream short course always has been popular. “It’s really been an education for me to see just how much people enjoy the ice cream business,” explained Roberts. “I’ve always enjoyed it from the science and technology side, but I’m amazed by how much people like to work with ice cream.
“They say everyone smiles when they are around ice cream, and that’s what seems to attract people to this business. They’re also able to indulge their creative side with new flavors and textures.”
Some short courses come and go, but the ice cream course never disappoints. “Ice cream’s just a fun product,” said Roberts. “A former Penn State professor once told me that, no matter where he went in the world, whenever he saw ice cream, he knew he was in civilization.”
Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University