Rylan McElhone enjoys growing and cooking his own food, he is passionate about the plight of animals, and is interested in learning about sustainable food production.
The St Mary’s Primary School Warners Bay student is also in Year 6 and has already designed a vegan burger that he says will challenge people’s perceptions of eating plant-based meat.
As a member of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Virtual Academy, Rylan was asked to research a solution to a problem he felt compelled to solve.
The program enables gifted students in Years 5-8 from across the Diocese to engage with like-minded learners who benefit from specifically-designed curriculum, undertaking research to provide solutions to a range of real-world challenges.
Rylan chose to investigate how plant-based meats could become a more popular substitute to traditional beef options.
“I first became passionate about the plight of animals when I first went vegetarian for Lent in 2019,” he said.
“That year I introduced myself to plant-based products. I didn’t know anything about plant-based products and I thought that meat was the best.”
As part of his investigation into this topic, Rylan created an online survey asking peers and adults what it was that might persuade them to eat plant-based meat.
He then analysed the responses and, using his creative skills, designed a new type of vegan burger.
The burger uses kale, spinach, mushrooms and chia seeds as an alternative to beef.
As part of his learning, Rylan produced a video presentation describing his motivation.
“Due to the restricted space given to animals that are eaten, overcrowding occurs,” he said.
“Animal overcrowding leads to the spread of infection, increasing the needs of antibiotics as a band aid solution for low welfare farming.
“The massive overuse of antibiotics makes these animals a perfect home for superbugs, like bacteria that can’t be treated with medicine.
“I have been looking to find an alternative to meat that is good for people and the environment.
“My prototype has been to find vegan ingredients and I have discovered that there is capacity for originality in our world”.
Rylan will admit his new learning hasn’t completely changed his eating habits.
“I have not cut out meat from my diet completely,” he said.
“I have changed the types of meats that I eat, for example, I eat chicken instead of beef, but when I do eat beef, I eat it in small quantities.
“The meats are also sustainably sourced, grass-fed, and organic when possible.
“I pay attention to what my family and I pick off the shelf at the supermarket.”
Despite not yet being a teenager, Rylan has big dreams for his future. Whether it will include sustainable food production, he’s yet to decide.
“I don’t really know yet if I’ll end up doing it for a living,” he said.
“I know that I will incorporate it into my daily life, but I don’t know if I will take it so far that I’ll end up doing it as a job.
“I hope that in the future we can empower people to make informed decisions about the food they eat and the impact their diets have on our environment.”
Rylan is one of 70 students engaged in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Virtual Academy; an education program designed to support and empower gifted students in Year 5-8.
Sally Brock is the education officer responsible for the delivery of Gifted Education across the Diocese’s network of schools, and said that students engaged in the virtual academy are required to complete units of work with integrated research on local, national and global issues.
“We place a strong focus on critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving to develop self-esteem, intrapersonal skills, academic outcomes and increase engagement,” Ms Brock said.
“The academy creates wonderful opportunities for students to meet and collaborate with peers and engage with community experts to assist with their research and provide real world feedback and context.”
Each semester students involved in the academy, including Rylan, showcase their research to a panel of experts as part of a presentation day.