A sweet opportunity for hands-on experience

Female student prepares ice cream cone

ISU Creamery employee Emily Tapken scoops an ice cream cone at the retail store in the Food Sciences Building. Photos by Christopher Gannon.

Donning hair nets, lab coats and other personal protective equipment, a half dozen student employees and their supervisor enter the brightly lit pilot production plant inside the Food Sciences Building.

The crew clusters around the soft serve ice cream machine, filling small paper cups and passing around spoons, unfazed by campus visitors peering through the windows. This isn't a snack break. Each bite is contemplative as they check the flavor, texture and color. On this particular day, it's a faint shade of purple.

"We're making Lunar Lavender, which is one of our eggless ice creams," said Jennessa Sharratt, a recent graduate in dietetics and a summer employee at the Creamery.

Earlier in the week, she explains, they mixed and pasteurized 400 pounds of whole milk, cream, sugar, whey protein, nonfat dried milk and a natural binding agent. After adding lavender extract, they "aged" their mixture for 24 hours in a freezer.

"The packing, which we're about to do, is my favorite part of the process," Sharratt said with a smile.

The students toss their empty paper cups, sanitize their gloves and form an assembly line to layer soft serve ice cream and honey into 8 oz. containers. Once a cart is full, the production supervisor, Danielle Christofferson, pushes it into the blast freezer. Here, the soft serve will transform into hard pack ice cream over the next 24 hours before it's sold to customers across campus and online.

A mission that's student-focused

Student employees hand-pack ice cream

ISU Creamery student employees (l-r) Daniel Brumm, Drew Taylor and Jennessa Sharratt pack a new batch of Lunar Lavender ice cream in the Food Sciences Building.

Business administrator Sarah Canova said the Creamery annually produces around 5,000 gallons of ice cream, along with 600 pounds of cheddar cheese and cheese curds. Most of it is sold in the Creamery's retail store in the Food Sciences Building. But customers also can buy 8 oz. cups in SPARKS cafe in the Student Innovation Center and Gentle Doctor Cafe in Veterinary Medicine. The Creamery also launched an online store in May to provide direct-door service.

"Only around 20 universities in the U.S., the majority of which are land-grant universities, have an on-campus creamery," Canova said. "We sell our products to gain back some money from the supplies and to pay the students, but the mission of the Creamery, first and foremost, is to educate students and give them hands-on experience."

Since the micro-creamery opened in August 2020, 49 undergraduates have worked in the pilot production plant, retail store or both. 

"A lot of the students come from food science, animal science and dietetics. They learn about pasteurization, the freezing process and cheesemaking in their classes, but when they're able to do that here at the Creamery, it really cements in. They also can learn how to manage finances, social media and inventory, and some students develop new products," she added.

Hannah Even, a junior majoring in culinary food science, said a love of baking and science early in life led her to Iowa State.

"I've always wanted to be a product developer chef, and thought I wanted to do that in the baking industry. But after learning more about dairy science through my classes and getting to work here, that shifted. My dream job is to work with ice cream and make new flavors for Wells Enterprises," Even said.

Experimenting with flavors

Learn more

Enjoy this 90-second video about student roles at the ISU Creamery.


Working in the Creamery over the last year has been "a good peek in the window," she explains. Along with gaining hands-on experience in food safety and pasteurization, Even is developing several new seasonal ice creams. They include a s'more flavor with fudge and graham cracker. She said the process is more complicated than adding toppings to a sundae.

"For example, we aren't using crushed up graham cracker, which could get soggy in the ice cream. We use a variegate, which is almost like a syrup that's premade for ice cream," Even explained.

Even and Canova say the s'more flavor is on track to be ready for the public by late summer. Like all of the Creamery's 20-plus ice creams, custards and frozen desserts, it will be named to celebrate a person or place at Iowa State.

Even also is developing the Creamery's first waffle cone. Since May, she has tested recipes for taste, crispness and shelf life while working to find the ideal size. Canova, who's enjoyed being part of the quality control team, expects the waffle cone will be available to customers in the Creamery's retail store this fall.

Not all students who work in the Creamery's pilot plant or retail stores envision careers related to ice cream, said Canova. Some are simply interested in learning more about where their food comes from and how it's made. But they're all tapping into a long tradition at Iowa State, starting with the first dairy lab on campus in 1880 and several iterations of a creamery. The latest version, reestablished by Canova and Stephanie Clark, a renowned dairy expert, professor and director of the Creamery, came after a 51-year hiatus.

"This unique opportunity that we're able to offer our students again is part of what makes ISU an excellent agricultural institution and hub of innovation," Canova said.