Last updated: 25 January 2015
Suzanne Kercher is a professor of environmental science. Her students design and build solar cookers, and test them at a college-wide Solar Cook-Off at the end of the term. She began teaching solar cooking in 2010.
Suzanne states, "My goal is to teach students about one aspect of sustainable living in a way that is fun and engaging and at the same time contributes to the growing awareness of the need for renewable energy. At home, I have been using the Global Sun Oven since April of 2011, and I am having a great time learning how to cook delicious food using the sun's free, clean energy! I use my solar oven almost daily, except for really cloudy or rainy days."
- February 2013: Students learn the scientific method through solar cooker experimentation - Solar cookers lend themselves exceptionally well to experimentation using the scientific method, and that is why Dr. Suzanne Kercher’s Environmental Science class at Columbia College in Missouri, USA, spends two months building solar cookers and testing solar cooker designs and cooking methods. Students present their final projects and experimental results at an Environmental Science Fair, an event that is open to all college faculty, students, and guests. While some students focus on comparing the performance of different types of solar cookers, others use a single type of cooker and focus on improving its cooking performance with variations in design and/or variations in the type of cookware used. Regardless of their experimental approach, their ultimate goal is to use the scientific method to construct a cooker that can safely cook food and/or pasteurize water in Missouri, USA in October. Since most college students are strapped for cash, the challenge quickly becomes, how do you build a functional cooker with materials that are readily available, repurposed, and/ or inexpensive to buy? I always point out to students that this aspect of the solar cooker project closely parallels the economic challenges facing a lot of people in the developing world. As an instructor, one of my greatest joys is witnessing the creativity of my students being applied to the practical challenge of cooking sustainably. Above all, that “lightbulb moment” when students first realize that renewable energy technologies are within their grasp, is even sweeter than the treats we cook at our end-of-term solar cook- off!
- January 2012: Last fall my undergraduate environmental science laboratory students were tasked with designing and building a functional solar cooker that they would present at a Cook-off during our end-of-term Environmental Science Fair, to be held in an outdoor courtyard area and open to all students and faculty at the college. The day of the Cook-off finally arrived in October. Sunny skies and temperatures approaching 60 degrees F (15.5 degrees C) were highly conducive to solar cooking, but gusty winds were less than ideal for the task. Nevertheless, since I had scheduled the Cook-off months in advance, I felt very fortunate to at least have the clear and sunny conditions! Each student in my class approached the assignment in a unique way; however, one favorite approach taken by nearly all of my students was to reuse and repurpose old junk they found, including toaster ovens, barbeque grills, discarded satellite dishes, cardboard boxes and even a cracked aquarium. This was a popular approach not only because it was thrifty but also because it reflected other environmental values my students held dear, such as waste and energy reduction. Two of my students constructed parabolic cookers using discarded satellite dishes. One of those students demonstrated the parabolic cooker’s potential for high heat cooking by placing a piece of paper in the focus. Within a minute or so, the paper started smoking and then ignited into flames! This is sure not a cooker you want to use when little kids or pets are running around! And be sure to wear sunglasses and possibly a hot glove to protect your hands from burns. A few students built panel-type cookers, which utilized aluminum foil-lined cardboard reflectors. Cooking pots and pans were then enclosed within clear plastic oven bags made to withstand high (400-500 degrees F, or ~200-260 degrees C) temperatures. Due to the strong winds present on the day of our Cook-off, unfortunately, these panel-style cookers failed to reach temperatures above the low 200’s Fahrenheit (~93 degrees C). In addition, since they were so lightweight, they had to be weighted down with rocks or anchored into the ground with tent stakes to keep them from blowing away! This style of cooker would definitely be best in Missouri on a hot summer day and when there is little to no wind present. On the day of our Cook-off, the enclosed box-style cookers seemed to work the best overall. Corissa and Stacey built a cooker out of an old barbeque grill fitted with a clear Plexiglas lid. A simple wall mirror reflected enough of the sun’s rays into the cooker to heat up apple cider for the class. Audrey used scrap reflective insulation as a reflector for her repurposed aquarium cooker, and she managed to reach nearly 250 degrees F (~121 degrees C) in her oven despite the wind, which was hot enough to bake a few mini-loaves of pumpkin bread during the fair. Of course, I also brought out my Global Sun Oven to show folks what commercial box-style cookers are capable of. My cooker easily reached 300-325 degrees F (~150-160 degrees C) and stayed there all day, needing only occasional minor repositioning to track the sun. I served up batch after batch of fresh, hot homemade chocolate chip cookies to my students and guests, in addition to loaves of bread I had baked in it the day before.
- the Stellar Award (for best overall solar cooker design and function),
- the Hot Stuff Award (based on hottest temperature achieved and sustained by the cooker),
- the Solar on a Shoestring Award (for the most economical yet functional cooker), and
- the No-Longer-Starving Artist Award (for the most creative/artistic yet functional cooker design).
Rick won the Stellar Award with his repurposed toaster oven box-style cooker, the “Rickmaster Deluxe Solar Oven.” Audrey won the Hot Stuff Award for the highest temperature reached and then sustained inside of her repurposed aquarium box-style cooker. Audrey also won the Solar on a Shoestring Award for the low total cost of the materials she used to build her highly functional cooker. All of the materials she used came from stuff she already had at her home, with the exception of some black barbeque paint she purchased to darken her cooker door. Finally, Heather D. won the No-Longer-Starving Artist Award for her beautiful mirror-mosaic satellite dish parabolic cooker. It was truly a work of art! Winners received a framed certificate and got to choose from an array of prizes provided by the college and myself. A great time was had by all, in spite of the surfeit of sweets (I have made a mental note to request more savory foods next time!) Several students commented on how excited they were to continue their adventures in solar cooking even after the course was over. Those are the words that every teacher wishes to hear!