Cold milk has long been offered alongside lunches and snacks in elementary schools, traditionally served in paper cartons. But those cartons require refrigeration, and they’re far from beloved by students. This has prompted schools and the dairy industry to look for another option to encourage milk consumption.
Enter food science major Caroline Lunning. She partnered with three other students to develop an innovative design for a shelf-stable, quick-cool milk pouch. With support from an industry mentor, the team submitted its concept last fall to the UW Dairy Innovation Hub Student Challenge.
“It was really gratifying to have an opportunity to work with other students, outside of the curriculum, to apply what we’re learning to something so important,” says Lunning, a returning adult student who previously cooked in restaurants for 20 years.
For their efforts, the students received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from their mentor, John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association. “Fluid milk packaging really lags behind in the creativity department,” he says. “It was really impressive to see a group of students come up with a cool new idea on how to do it.”
Dairy is an important agricultural sector in Wisconsin. It generates $43.4 billion annually for the state’s economy. But dairy is in the middle of a tough stretch, facing more than just packaging-related difficulties. Dairy farmers have endured low milk prices for several years. The industry has also been struggling with changing consumer preferences: Fluid milk consumption is down while demand for other dairy products, such as cheese, has increased.
All of these issues were recently outlined by the state’s Dairy Task Force 2.0, which inspired CALS Associate Dean Heidi Zoerb to develop the student challenge. Her proposal was one of seven projects financed by the Hub last year, a state-funded, cooperative effort among three University of Wisconsin System campuses that works to support Wisconsin dairy research and development.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to leverage student creativity to address some of these issues,” says Zoerb.
The Hub’s student challenge benefited from the involvement of all three cooperating schools: UW– Madison, UW–Platteville, and UW–River Falls. With the help of industry mentors, students teamed up to propose innovative solutions in three focus areas identified by the task force: encouraging dairy consumption among Wisconsin students, enhancing the shelf life of dairy products, and utilizing new technologies to improve dairy farming. In creating and running the competition, Zoerb partnered with Hyper Innovation, a local agency that takes on complex problems in industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in the original plan to hold in-person meetings. Instead, the challenge was reformatted as an online program. Zoom calls replaced weekly meetings.
“One of the hidden benefits about having the whole thing online was that it was actually easier for all three campuses to participate on a much more level playing field because everyone was confined to virtual meetings,” says Zoerb. Instead of traveling to the UW–Madison campus, students could spend more time working on their projects. (View the final presentations for the Dairy Innovation Hub Student Challenge.)
Ash Maheshwari, a first-year MBA student at UW–Madison, teamed up with two undergraduates from UW–River Falls to work on two projects simultaneously. The trio developed a concept for a clip-on septum ring to monitor a calf ’s temperature and respiratory patterns, and they created an online gaming concept to encourage dairy consumption.
For Maheshwari, participating in the competition was a great way to get involved with other parts of the UW community. “I was the sole MBA [student] in this challenge,” he says, “and I was eager to use what I had gained from my applied learnings on a real-world problem.”
The participants, which included undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students, completed seven projects in total. They brought perspectives from multiple fields, such as agriculture, business, and food science.
Facilitating connections was one of the biggest successes of the student challenge. For Varsha Swaminathan MS’19, the partnerships she formed with her teammate, Lauren Sipple BS’17, and their industry mentor, Adam Brock of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, were invaluable.
“[Adam’s] expertise in product development and his connections were a huge bonus,” says Swaminathan, who, along with Sipple, is a Ph.D. student in food science. “And Lauren was a very supportive, encouraging teammate. I believe that her constant support throughout the competition helped us win three prizes for our proposed solution.”
Their team proposed using bioactive molecules instead of chemical preservatives to increase the shelf life of yogurt. The duo won Best of Focus Area: Enhance the Shelf Life of Wisconsin Dairy Products, Best Execution Plan, and Most Sustainable. Judging took place in November 2020.
Zoerb was pleased to see students from three UW System campuses jump a multitude of hurdles to introduce their innovative ideas to the Wisconsin dairy industry.
“It was amazing,” she says, “how much these groups of students were able to get accomplished in eight weeks — virtually — during a semester where everything was really unpredictable.”