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Sunshine, on my shoulders, makes me….COOKIES!!!

May 10, 2012
By cnp
Posted in Environmental Studies

Tuesday, May 8 dawned, cloudy and cool. Throughout the day, Dr. Kim Van Scoy couldn't keep from peering nervously out the window, hoping for the clouds to break, but still they persisted. Even as she drove home that evening, the clouds were still there, painting the sky a dull, sullen gray color.

But Wednesday "I was really panicked," Van Scoy confessed. "The first thing when I got up this morning - the first thing I did was check the windows." What she saw brought a big sigh of relief and an even bigger smile. The day was perfect…the sun was shining brightly in a brilliant blue sky, with only one or two puffy clouds on the horizon. The day was perfect for a solar oven cook-off.

Why a solar oven cook-off?

Van Scoy came up with the idea to have her students make their own solar oven as the final project in her Environmental Science class so they would have a chance to get some hands-on experience in harnessing sunlight as an alternative energy source. Her course focuses on the nature and methods of science, in particular as they relate to the environment. For each subject or problem presented, the students then discuss the ethical, social and political dilemmas posed, and learn about alternative solutions to the problems.

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Matt Friant adjusts the reflector on the oven built by The Solar Chefs.

After months of planning, the solar oven cook-off was set to take place on Wednesday morning, during the time allocated for the class final exam. So when she saw that morning that the skies had cleared, Van Scoy was more than relieved. "Had it been yesterday, we’d have been…." Her voice trailed off. "But I decided that if we had a really bad day, then they would have learned another lesson about solar cooking - that it’s weather dependent," she said. "I really wanted to be able to do it, because they were getting really excited about doing it."

The students had been divided into five teams, and they began working on their ovens about mid-way through the spring semester. Each team had to research solar oven designs and using what they learned, design their own solar oven and turn in their plans to Van Scoy. She then provided each team with the same reflective materials, and then they had to build their oven. The solar cook-off put each team’s design to the test by seeing if they could actually cook something in their oven.

Van Scoy said the students got pretty creative, and came up with a number of different designs. Two teams created their solar ovens with a large adjustable reflector, while another built an oven with a single reflector but used magnifying glass lenses to focus the sun’s rays into their oven. Another oven had four non-adjustable reflectors, one on each side. One team used a discarded satellite dish as a reflector, focusing the sun’s rays on the bottom of their oven. The final team used foam to create their reflectors and held them in place with tomato stakes. All the ovens had a clear cover, and each had a thermometer inside so the cooks could monitor the temperature.

After the ovens were setup, the teams put their food in, then sat back to wait for it to cook. Solar cooking, as Van Scoy reminded them, is more like cooking something in a crock-pot…it takes time for the ovens to reach a temperature where the food will begin to cook. "They should have all done several test runs," she said. "I’ve seen them outside over the last couple of weeks. They should have tested their recipes as well. We had one group that started out with a pie and decided that a pie crust was not going to happen…a pie crust is not going to happen in a solar oven!"

She walked from group to group, clipboard in hand. "I’m grading their oven," she said. "I’m looking at a couple of things. I’m looking at their design, and whether or not it’s a good design. I’m looking at what temperature they achieved. I’m also asking them what materials they used to build their box, what they’re using for their insulation source, what they’re using for their transparent top." But Van Scoy said she would not be judging their food. "I have a group coming out to judge what they baked. They’ll be judging on doneness and taste," she added. "They’ll get bonus points for that."

Nathan Miller, of The Recyclers, said they were baking no-wheat cookies in their oven. "Right now, we’re almost at 250" he said. "That backer board is what catches the sunlight and pushes it back in there." The box was covered with an oven bag to help trap the heat. Miller pointed to the cookies - "We probably should have flattened them out before we put them in there, because you usually cook cookies at 350 in a regular oven," he said, "but we’ve been at 250 for about 20 minutes, so we have about 40 minutes to go."

Robert Sarber, of the team The Black Mambas, explained how their oven, which used an old satellite dish as a reflector, focused the heat on the bottom of their cooking box. "If you feel it right up here, you’ll feel how hot it is," he said, holding his hand under the bottom of the box. "We actually changed it last weekend, because we realized the optimal height was going to be up here, rather than down here." Their experimentation was paying off…people could actually smell the cookies baking when they walked by the oven. Sarber showed how the dish could be adjusted to change the angle of the reflected sunlight, and said "We’ve worked on it for at least a month or so. I actually caught a piece of paper on fire the other day."

The Solar Chefs were making peanut butter cookies in their oven, and the temperature inside was up to 250 degrees after only an hour and 15 minutes. Matt Friant explained that they came up with their design after researching on the web. "We did a lot of research online and we saw a lot of models like this," he said. "The ones made of plywood, painted black, seemed to hold more heat," added Emily Black, another Solar Chef. Friant pointed out the magnifying glass lenses positioned around the top of the oven, and to the dark-colored bricks in the bottom, explaining that the lenses were there to help concentrate the sun’s rays into the oven while the bricks would help hold in the heat.

Emily Towe explained how her team’s oven used a reflector to direct sunlight into the cooking box, and said that by painting it black, they believed the oven box would hold in more heat. "We were at 200," she said, "but we had to open the box, so we’re back down to around 180." Their oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies were baking, but slowly. Her group had demonstrated one of the shortfalls of solar ovens…if you have to open them, you quickly lose heat, and you have to then wait for the heat to build back up.

Another team, Team Expo, had four reflectors around their oven box, and it had reached a temperature of 220 degrees after about an hour and a half. "I honestly am surprised it works," said Jenny Price. "We painted it black, and added more cardboard…it’s working!"

While it seems like building a solar oven would be fairly straight-forward, some of the students said that it wasn’t quite as simple as it looked. When asked where Team Tomato Stick got the inspiration for their oven design, Bill Eldridge matter-of-factly answered, "We had none. We have no background in engineering; we have no idea what we’re doing. It was a lovely, elegant design - it looked kind of like Sputnik - but then Mother Nature decided ‘hmmm….I think I’m going to send them a gentle breeze that will completely mess everything up.’" As he talked one of the reflectors caught a puff of wind and floated off onto the campus mall. But the team wasn’t giving up just yet. As another team member retrieved the way-ward reflector, Eldridge pointed to the four very large chocolate chip cookies in their oven. "One of the corners of our cookie mass (because we put slightly too large cookies in there and they’ve grown together) is cooking slower than the others, but they are cooking."

"Is this one of the judges I need to bribe?" one Team Tomato Stick member joked as Dr. Jesse Weiss, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, walked up and handed the blank certificates to Van Scoy. "This is one of the judges you need to bribe," Van Scoy said. "The only way you bribe him is with good food though…that’s the only way he can be bought."

Weiss, along with Amy Oatis, Assistant Professor of English, and George Strachan, ARAMARK Food Services Director, were the judges for the cook-off. "They’re going to be judging on doneness and taste," Van Scoy explained. "You know if some of you had been brave enough to do brownies, you so would have won!" she laughed and called out to everyone . "Everybody just wimped out and did cookies!"

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Amy Oatis and George Strachan judge the cookies made by The Black Mambas and The Solar Chefs.

As the judging got underway, Strachan talked with the students about their oven construction, and made careful notes about their cookies…the smell, the texture, the taste. Although he said he didn’t have any personal experience with solar ovens, he was intrigued and impressed with the designs. "The one with the satellite dish got really hot," he said, "but they were all hot enough to cook their recipes."

"I thought it was interesting that they all tried to make cookies," Oatis said. "That surprised me. To me, a cookie is really hard to get done just right. That’s challenging! They all took on, whether they intended to or not, a greater challenge." But while Oatis said she was somewhat surprised by the recipe selection, she said she was really surprised by the amount of planning and effort that went into the ovens themselves. "I was just really impressed with the construction of the ovens," she said. "I hope we do it again! I think it just fits so nicely with Environmental Science - learning about alternative forms of energy - and with our outdoors program."

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Jesse Weiss tries a sample of the rye honey cookies baked by The Recyclers.

In the end, it was the oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies baked in The Black Mamba’s satellite dish "powered" solar oven that took the top prize. Team members Robert Sarber, Tristan Cooper, Codie Freeman, and Nick Hernandez now go down in Ozarks history as being the winners of the first ever solar oven cook-off. Second place went to The Solar Chefs - Bo Thomas, Emily Black, Matt Friant, Kurstein Keck, and Chris Holmes - for their gluten-free peanut butter cookies. The Recyclers - Serena Clokey, Meagan Bell, Elodie Adams, Nathan Miller, and Corey Snyder - took third place with their rye honey cookies.

"They really did a great job," Oatis said afterwards. "I can see this as a convo - ‘come learn how to make a solar oven,’" she said with a laugh. "Someone needs to make a pizza!"