If you can’t beat the heat, why not use it to make cupcakes?
A group of Livingston middle school students did just that Tuesday, using the plentiful sunshine and a few household materials to create their energy-efficient projects.
It’s all part of a class underway during Livingston’s STREAM Summer Academy which, by the end of the session, will teach scores of students how to make their own solar ovens.
“It’s better for the Earth to save energy and cause less pollution,” said Matthew Villegas, 13.
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Solar ovens, widely referred to as solar cookers, are devices used to harness the power of sunlight to cook food – anything from vegetables and meat to rice and baked goods. The most common types are heat-trap boxes, curved concentrators and panel cookers.
On Tuesday, students in the academy’s science, reading and engineering class used cardboard boxes, plastic wrap, duct tape, tin foil and black paper to create ovens that allowed them to bake small batches of chocolate cupcakes.
Aryanna Romo, 13, was pleased to be able to share the treat with her project partner, Estrella Estrada, also 13.
“It opens up their minds to look at new ways for solving problems,” teacher Shannon Mauras said. “This is more sustainable than a fire because it can be used over and over again without impacting the environment.”
The first successful solar oven is believed to have been created by Horace-Benedict de Saussure, a Swiss physicist, in 1767. Today, solar cooking is used widely in areas where electrical power is limited, sunlight being the only type of fuel needed.
“You don’t have to use fires, and solar ovens can help save the environment,” Matthew said.
Aryanna and Estrella chose to make an oven that was smaller than those of other students. The smaller the space, the more the heat is contained, they said.
Matthew noted that the cardboard he used acted as a thermal insulator. He learned that by angling the metal foil in the direction of the sun, he enabled the oven to heat up faster. Next time he makes one, however, he might opt to use a sturdier plastic sheet rather than plastic wrap to keep heat trapped inside.
“If you fail, just keep on trying,” Matthew said.
Aryanna and Estrella used more cardboard inside their oven to create more thermal insulation, one of the reasons their box heated up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.
“More insulation keeps heat inside the box,” Mauras said.
Aryanna, Estrella and Matthew all placed black paper on the bottom of their ovens because dark surfaces heat up more in the sunlight.
“You don’t need energy to cook stuff,” Isaac Ramos, 13, said. “You can harvest energy from the sun.”
Isaac and Matthew said they would probably try to use solar ovens again. Isaac said he would try to make chicken and rice.
“The most important step is to make sure heat is trapped, and there’s no holes for heat to get out,” Isaac said.
Mauras hopes that the kids coming through her class will learn more about engineering and about the process of creating new ways to solve problems.
“They make cooler stuff than I do,” Mauras said. “They’re brilliant.”