UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s newest online certificate combines the study of sensory and consumer science with statistics, with an eye toward preparing students to obtain, analyze and describe product and consumer insight; provide clear recommendations on optimizing the quality of products; and increase the market success of those products.
The certificate is the first milestone toward the long-term goal of offering a master of professional studies in sensory and consumer science that covers both food and nonfood products.
The graduate certificate is a 12-credit, online program offering formal education to current sensory and consumer professionals and to those who wish to enter the field. Most courses within the sensory and consumer science program also are available as individual courses for those looking to fulfill their continuing professional development needs.
Helene Hopfer, assistant professor of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, noted that a 2014 needs assessment conducted by John Hayes, associate professor of food science, found that roughly half of sensory scientists currently working in industry do not have a formal degree in sensory science.
“Most sensory scientists have a degree in food science, and they may have taken a class on sensory science or worked with a handful of sensory science and consumer science faculty,” she said. “This certificate was developed specifically to help close this gap in formal education for sensory professionals by covering both food and nonfood products.”
The four courses in the certificate program address the most commonly endorsed needs and skill sets desired by respondents of Hayes’ survey. Courses include Sensory Data Collection and Analysis, Applied Statistics, Sensometrics, and Consumer Insights.
Sensory Data Collection and Analysis (FDSC 403) covers the fundamentals of sensory science. As Hopfer explained, understanding where good sensory practices come from and how they’re rooted in the fundamentals of human perception and biases is a critical part of sensory science.
“What we know from conversations with sensory professionals is that you can very quickly teach people how to conduct the bartending for a sensory taste test,” she said. “However, it's harder to make people aware of why we use a certain protocol or method. If you don't have the fundamental understanding of human perception, human biases and halo effects, then it is difficult to understand why we make the design decisions we do to reduce outside influences.”
Consumer Insights (FDSC 516) is taught by industry professional Sarah Kirkmeyer, adjunct professor of food science, who has decades of experience as a consumer insight professional.
The course looks at what tools can be used to understand consumers both on the qualitative side and more quantitatively with regards to surveys, questionnaires, interviews, diaries, focus groups and online communities.
Applied Statistics (STAT 500), is part of the certificate because much of the work in sensory and consumer science focuses on collecting and analyzing data. Students will learn about descriptive statistics, hypothesis testing, statistical power, estimation, confidence intervals, regression, one- and two-way analysis of variance, chi-square tests, and diagnostics.
Sensometrics (FDSC 515), is the multivariate analysis of sensory data and is closely related to Applied Statistics. The main objective of this course is to allow each student to develop the data- analysis skills needed for evaluating and interpreting sensory and consumer data.
The online format of the classes allows the program to reach professionals around the world who may be unable to leave their jobs and move to Pennsylvania.
“With World Campus, Penn State has a leading online educational system in place that is not just a recorded lecture posted online,” Hopfer said, adding that courses can be taken on a stand-alone basis or in any order, providing additional flexibility for working professionals.
She also pointed out that all the courses were designed in concert with professional instructional designers to optimize online learning.
“There's a lot of immediate feedback, a lot of group work, and a lot of interactive work that incorporates best practices for online teaching and learning,” Hopfer said. “This allows people to learn these tools and apply them immediately.”
While other universities offer an online certificate in sensory science, Hopfer said Penn State’s program is unique because classes are fully accredited, credit courses approved by the Penn State Graduate School and are taught by a mix of tenure-line faculty and industry experts.
“I'm excited about this program,” she said. “It’s taken some time to get all the approvals in place, but it's been fun to see it all come together. Sensory and consumer science is an interdisciplinary field, so having an interdisciplinary faculty team who all approach the classes with unique perspectives is a real benefit to our students.”