Arts and Entertainment

Engineering alumnae knead engineering into baking on new Netflix series

Sara Schonour, a Penn State architectural engineering alumna, puts finishing touches on the surrounding landscape for an edible structure that must support 150 pounds. Credit: NetflixAll Rights Reserved.

This story contains spoilers for the first season of "Baking Impossible," which features two Penn State engineering graduates.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Making a cake involves mixing batter, baking a sponge and decorating, but what if that cake also needs to function as a boat sailing down a channel or a vehicle that can cross an obstacle course? Penn State engineering alumnae Sara Schonour and Renee Frohnert faced such challenges as contestants on the new Netflix series “Baking Impossible,” which premiered Oct. 6. All eight episodes are available for streaming. 

Renee Frohnert, a Penn State electrical engineering alumna, competed on Baking Impossible on Netflix. Credit: Image provided by Renee FrohnertAll Rights Reserved.

The show brings together professional bakers and engineers to compete in “bakineering” challenges for a chance to win a $100,000 grand prize. Working in randomly assigned two-person teams consisting of one baker and one engineer, the “bakineers” were tasked with completing edible engineering feats from Rube-Goldberg machines to tasty skyscrapers that can withstand a simulated earthquake. 

The bakineers had access to a variety of equipment, including a laser cutter, wood shop, CAD drafting software and a hardness testing machine, and parts, including motors, wires, lights and Arduino microcontrollers.

Access to lots of tools is one thing; however, knowing how to use them to apply engineering principles to sugar and flour is another.

“I was excited to use the lab skills I learned at Penn State,” said Frohnert, a 2016 electrical engineering alumna who currently works as leader of business development at L3Harris Technologies and as a visiting lecturer at Cornell University, where she earned a master’s degree in systems engineering in 2019. “I was particularly excited about remote controls, because I work with antennas, and we had to keep in mind that the signal would be smaller the further away an object is. There were a lot of curveballs when you started building and you had to learn not to be married to your original design.”

Schonour, a 2007 architectural engineering alumna and current vice president of education and engagement at Lytei, highlighted the importance of the engineering process in the series.

“Problem-solving was a big part of the show for me,” Schonour said. “Each mission started with constraints, and we had to work with those constraints to come up with a hypothesis, test it, pivot and adjust to make the design work. It’s like, how do you take these ridiculously difficult challenges and boil them down into something I can do with Rice Krispies?”

The bakineers applied concepts from various fields, including physics, mathematics, electrical engineering, materials science and more, to create each inventive cake. This application, Schonour said, couldn’t have taken place without the help of their teammates.

“We both had partners who were really talented people and very willing to collaborate and learn,” Schonour said. “It was great working with someone who knew their craft — for example, how chocolate does its thing, what happens when you leave it out, what happens when it gets too humid, when it gets wet — and that made the engineering much more attainable.”

Schonour worked with Rodolfo Bula Goncalves, a former web developer turned pastry chef and bakery owner from Brazil. Frohnert’s partner was Steve Day, a pastry artist at Boca Raton Resort in Florida.

“At first when we were paired, we thought that I knew engineering and Steve knew baking and that it would automatically come together,” Frohnert said. “Once we really started working together as a team, you can see that the edible and the engineering came together in our designs as well.”

Their collaboration led to success. Both Penn State-affiliated teams placed in the final four teams, and Schonour and Goncalves advanced further — ultimately taking home the top prize of $100,000. 

“If you would have told me going into this competition that we'd come out on top, I would not have believed you,” Schonour said. “But this experience has taught me so much about believing in myself, doing my best, and going all-in. It's amazing what you can do with a ‘let's do this’ mindset — and great teamwork.”

For the engineers, the show was also an opportunity to highlight diversity in science, technology, engineering and math. For Frohnert, who participates in public speaking and social media outreach for STEM, math, the show provided a platform to share her excitement for the field with women and girls, she said. And Schonour used the show’s unique premise to inspire young people from a variety of backgrounds.

“I hope that children and young adults who don’t want to go into a traditional field can see this and learn about the other possibilities for their careers,” she said. “The cast was a lovely representation of where talent really lies, and it showed that when you put diverse minds together, you can get amazing things.”

 

Last Updated October 28, 2021

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