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Renewable Energy in the Classroom: Engineering Solar Ovens

Renewable Energy in the Classroom: Engineering Solar Ovens

Renewable energy is the focus of the last quarter of my Environmental Science class. In this day and age, I believe this is the most important class a student can take. To be able to send kids out into the world with the knowledge they need to make a real difference is my main goal, and lord knows our environment needs conscious citizens now more than ever.

As I and the students continue to get comfortable with the Next Generation Science Standards, this unit has proven to be the perfect one to get our hands dirty. When it comes to renewable energy, engineering is key. This unit culminates with a project where the students will design and create a sustainable community. The idea is to take the knowledge they know about nonrenewable and renewable energy and figure out the best options for swapping out conventional energy for renewable energy, specifically in their communities.

There are a ton of resources out there for building real, functioning solar panels, wind turbines, and waterwheels (as a part of a dam) – but they’re expensive and lord knows my broke teacher self can’t take that extra expense right now. This is where the engineering comes in. We’ve done extensive research into each of  those renewable energy sources, including how they work, the cost, efficiency, etc. It’s then up to the students to use their knowledge to build one of their own.

The first one we built was a solar oven. The last unit we focused on was human population dynamics and developed/developing countries. So rather than spend lots of money trying to build an actual functioning solar panel, we decided to build a solar oven, which the students have learned is an essential technology to help developing nations with little to no access to electricity. Not only can a solar oven use the sun to cook food, but it can also heat water to temperatures that kill pathogens, allowing countries with very little access to clean water the opportunity to purify their available water.

The students LOVED this project. We spent 2.5 days of testing and revisions before we were ready to put them to the real test. Supplies included a multitude of different items including shoe boxes, pizza boxes, wooden boxes, tinfoil, mirrors, styrofoam, newspaper, plastic wrap, black spray paint, and much more. The weather lately has been cold and rainy pretty much nonstop – so as soon as the sun made an official appearance on Monday, we rushed out to test them. Students previously learned the best tilt angle and direction to face their ovens for optimal heat (42 degrees – our town’s latitude – and southeast for the morning hours,/southwest for the afternoon hours) so after they were properly set up, the test was underway! Students monitored the internal temperature every 10 minutes. Within just one hour, we had one oven get up to 170 degrees when it was only 42 degrees outside!

Since it was the senior’s last full day of classes, so we celebrated with melting our own smores in the ovens. The next day, we compared and contrasted data with one another to see what aspects of the solar ovens worked well and what potentially needed improvement.


Within the next week and a half, we’ll complete a waterwheel and a wind turbine, so stay tuned! What types of engineering are you doing in your classes? Let me know in the comments section!

2 thoughts on “Renewable Energy in the Classroom: Engineering Solar Ovens

  1. Shark Tank projects! Students design a solution to a problem in the medical field. A lot of their ideas are generated from medical situations lived ones are going through. Others had some really cool futuristic ideas.

    1. I love that idea – great way to connect engineering to their lives! I love the NGSS approach because it gives the less academic kids a chance to really shine. And it’s way more fun than listening to me ramble! I want to work a bit more on having the kids go into the community and find out how feasible it would be to implement more renewable energy. Or at least find out what businesses are doing to make that shift.

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