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Getting to Know the
Food Safety Innovators

at NC State University’s Stevenson Lab

Here’s a hard truth about food safety: Motivating people who manufacture and handle our food to make positive changes in their food safety behaviors is oftentimes VERY difficult. And many tactics used just aren’t that effective.

But, happily, we’re here to tell you the smart, passionate, forward-thinking folks at North Carolina State University’s Stevenson Lab have really nailed it!

Clint Stevenson, the brilliant, heart-centered founder of the Stevenson Lab, is the mastermind behind the huge success of their work. What, exactly, are they doing and what’s their secret? Well, there’s A LOT to tell. Innovative e-learning solutions for the food industry that simulate real-world environments with interactive lessons gives you a hint. But, read on to learn more in our interview with Julie Yamamoto, Project Coordinator/Instructional Designer, and hop on board with their TOP tip for preventing foodborne illness.

The Stevenson Lab Team
Pictured from left: Jessica White (Instructional Designer); Kristen Saniga (Graduate Student); Clint Stevenson (Assistant Professor); Stephanie Maggio (Graduate Student); Julie Yamamoto (Project Coordinator/ Instructional Designer); Madhu Dutta (Graduate Student)

Q: Julie, tell us about your personal story and how you’ve come to be in your profession.
A: Like many instructional designers, I have a deep respect for education and see it as a foundational element in making a difference in the world. As a young person interested in sharing my passion for learning, I chose to finish my four-year degree in intermediate education anchored with the thinking that kids in the upper elementary grades were prime for learning. They’re old enough to be independent in a classroom, but still easily influenced by a passionate teacher.

Then, reality sank in.

Poor teacher salaries in North Carolina, combined with my taking a course in educational psychology and teaching methods, opened my eyes to the benefits of continuing my education in the field of instructional design. After finishing that degree, I lucked out. I landed a solid first job in the telecommunications industry where I learned the demands and discipline required for accountability in corporate work. I held several other instructional design positions before learning of Clint Stevenson’s passion and commitment to food safety and his need for project coordination and sound instructional design. Clint’s enthusiasm and devotion to trying new things, checking out cutting-edge technology, and building a stellar distance education program for NC State’s Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS) department keeps me hooked! I love my work as Project Coordinator and Instructional Designer for the Stevenson Lab where we design and develop educational activities and teach courses that help people make food safe. 

Q: What’s a “day in the life” like for your team?
A: All of us in the Stevenson Lab are devoted to teaching students and food manufacturing professionals about food science and food safety.

As an Assistant Professor and Distance Education Coordinator, Dr. Stevenson teaches food science courses to university students at undergraduate and graduate levels. He helps students conduct research and determine how their course of study and skills can make a positive difference in the world of food safety. Additionally, Dr. Stevenson coordinates and conducts outreach programs for employees in many different food industries, sits on a number of food science-related boards, presents our work to industry professionals and academics, and publishes research papers. Our ultimate goal is to contribute toward the greater good of creating and maintaining a safe food supply.

As a Project Coordinator and Instructional Designer, I help prioritize projects within the lab; I also work with Dr. Stevenson and students to manage projects from start to finish. As an example, let’s look at our artisan cheese course.

More background on the Artisan Cheese Course:

Graduate student Madhu Dutta started her Master’s degree program in 2016 and showed interest in writing her thesis in concert with our lab’s work on an online course for artisan cheesemakers. Artisan operations are considered to be at higher risk for food safety hazards in general, and the dairy industry has recorded a considerable increase in the number of artisan cheesemakers between 1980 and 2016.

To get a comprehensive picture of the challenges, Dr. Stevenson’s colleague, Dennis D’Amico, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, was awarded a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to facilitate the Artisan Dairy Forum in Providence, RI. Approximately 100 experts with experience or interest in supporting the artisan and farmstead cheesemaking industry attended this conference. The Forum’s objective was to develop a consensus of the issues and challenges facing this community and create a plan for addressing them. As part of the plan, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy contacted Dr. Stevenson.

Once it was clear that a web-based training program would help support the ultimate goal, our team began brainstorming design ideas. We know good design means making our materials relevant and keeping our audience engaged. As e-learning professional Michael Allen says, the best courses are “meaningful, memorable and motivational.”

We also know people relate best to stories. Stories are much more likely to change people’s behaviors than simply sharing statistics. So, a top priority was establishing the *why* behind food safety. We want our learners to deeply appreciate the importance of food safety and the horrors of what can happen to consumers if they don’t follow food safety protocols.

Without a big budget for video interviews, we found the stories on the Stop Foodborne Illness website provided exactly what we needed to draw in our audience. We took the faces and stories of victims and incorporated them into our e-learning modules so our students could understand this important truth:

Every foodborne illness is a real person who suffered. 

When people are making the food we eat, some may skip over food safety practices because they don’t have a deep awareness of its importance. When someone does hear a story or a meets a victim, the pain and suffering of that person becomes real—it gives them a reason to re-examine their food safety protocols.

Madhu has put so much time and effort into her research and thesis, and it’s truly been a labor of love. Helping artisan cheesemakers understand the importance of food safety and interpret and adhere to federal and state regulations has been so rewarding. We’re proud to report we enrolled over 750 participants in this voluntary training within six months. Survey results show 97% satisfaction with content relevance and overall quality. Even more exciting, 42% of respondents have changed or updated their food safety practices or intend to change them based on what they learned.

Q: How do you see the Stevenson Lab continuing its partnership with Stop Foodborne Illness?
A: There are many potential partnership opportunities similar to what we did with our artisan cheese course. We will definitely keep turning to Stop Foodborne Illness for stories of people who’ve been affected by contaminated food.

Q: What’s ONE thing you urge our readers to do to help prevent foodborne illness?
A: One thing that’s so important is for your readers to keep telling their stories! And they should tell them with passion. Whether you’re a victim or a loved one of someone affected or an educator, look for opportunities to spread the food safety word. What you say to someone today about cooking foods to a safe temperature, refrigerating leftovers within 2 hours, or any other food safety tip, can save a life.

The Stevenson Lab, located at North Carolina State University, is dedicated to developing innovative e-learning solutions for the next generation of food-science professionals as well as those already working in the food industry. The Lab continually researches science-based solutions for creating educational scenarios that not only increase knowledge but also change behavior. Upcoming projects include 360° virtual tours of food manufacturing businesses, simulations such as mock audits, and e-learning modules on recent food safety regulations such as environmental monitoring. Keep up with their latest developments here.