Host a Solar Cookout for Earth Day!
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
A solar cookout is a tasty and accessible way to bring a school community together around the common goal of exploring alternative energy sources. Here are simple, step-by-step directions to host a solar cookout for your class or for your entire school! You can plan a simple, save-the-earth themed picnic, or you can expand the project into an inquiry-driven design challenge. Either way, your students will have a wonderful time cooking pizza and s’mores in their homemade ovens.
What’s a Solar Cookout?
A solar cookout is a picnic, environmental awareness lesson, and community-building event all wrapped into one. Students “cook” simple recipes outside using their own homemade solar cookers (also called “solar ovens”). Solar cookers vary from very simple designs made with small pizza boxes and tin foil, to “adult” models that can be used to cook entire meals.
All you need is a sunny outdoor space, some recyclable materials, and basic snack supplies. The PTA generously sponsored the pizza and s’mores supplies at my school. Remember to have your students wear sunscreen too! If the sun is strong enough to cook our pizzas, it’s certainly also damaging our skin! (A local dermatologist visited to speak to the children about sun safety — an important public health issue that we should definitely teach our students about!)
Download this fact sheet for more information about solar cooking that you can share with your students and colleagues as you plan a solar cookout.
Why Host a Solar Cookout?
A solar cookout teaches about a renewable and sustainable alternative form of energy — solar energy! A single solar panel collects energy from the sun and converts it into as much as 100 kilowatts of electricity. That’s enough power to light 1,700 60-watt light bulbs. However, solar cell panels are somewhat abstract to building our students’ understanding of the power of the sun. A cookout will give students a tangible real-world experience with solar energy, all while making tasty treats.
In addition to learning about solar energy, students will also learn about sun safety, an important health issue as summer approaches. Finally, if you host a Solar Cooker Design Challenge, students will learn about the design process and creative problem solving as they engineer “better” solar cookers.
NGO’s and scientists have been exploring the potential of solar cooking in the developing world to help alleviate air quality problems, deforestation, and to help women in places where collecting firewood is a life-threatening chore. This National Geographic video explains the usefulness of solar cookers in developing countries in terms that are appropriate for elementary students.
How Do We Build our Solar Ovens?
The simplest, classic solar oven design uses a pizza box, tin foil, black paper, plastic wrap, and a pencil. You can find dozens of easy directions online. Your students can either build their oven at home with their families, or they can do it at school. (Here is one set of easy directions that students can follow to build their oven.) A first grade teacher at my school invited parents to the classroom for a solar oven building family project on Earth Day, so she’d have plenty of adult hands on deck to help with the oven building. You may want to share this solar oven DIY video with your students and their families.
There’s no need to limit your students’ ovens to the classic pizza box design. Older students may enjoy researching different solar oven designs and coming up with their own prototype. This is a perfect lead-in to the Solar Cooker Design Challenge, my students’ favorite part of the process!
A classic solar cookout is awesome on its own, and if you’re teaching primary students or it’s your first time leading a solar cookout, it’s probably the perfect place to stop. However, for upper elementary students who want more of a challenge, the Solar Cooker Design Challenge is an exciting way to add an experimental science component to the project. (For more on how I use engineering design challenges in my classroom, check out my blog post "Building Teamwork and Bridges: A STEM Icebreaker.")
I asked my students to improve upon the standard pizza box solar cooker design by creating a solar cooker that can melt two ice cubes in the fastest time (i.e. faster than in the standard-design cooker.) They brainstormed variables and sketched designs at school and then created their souped-up solar cookers at home.
Here are some variables students may want to test as they design their improved-upon solar ovens:
How does the color of the paper on the bottom of the solar cooker box affect the temperature inside the solar cooker?
How does the angle of the “flap” of the solar cooker affect the cooker temperature? (Use protractors to measure flap angles and record the different temperatures.)
How does leaving the opening of the solar cooker uncovered affect the temperature?
Does the brand/style/type of foil affect the temperature in a solar cooker (heavy duty versus regular foil; rumpled and then flattened foil versus regular foil; colored foil)?
Scientific vocabulary: reflection, absorption, greenhouse effect, solar thermal energy, insulation, radiation
Their solar cookers had to be homemade and constructed from predominantly household/recycled materials. For safety, cookers could not incorporate glass lenses or mirrors. Their ovens had to be able to hold ice cubes in a small shallow dish or container, and judges should be able to view the ice cube from the outside of the oven while it is “cooking.” (By the way, this isn’t just a challenge for kids; adults are working on the very same thing in the “real world.” I particularly like this video about the work of two solar cooker inventors trying to come up with a cooking solution to combat toxic cooking fumes in western China.) I sent home a planning worksheet and a rules page to help my students and their families as they worked on their ovens at home.
Here is the Solar Cooker Design Challenge rules page and the entry form that I shared with my students.
Let the Sun Shine In!
On the day of the Solar Cookout, I had bags of ingredients portioned out and ready to go for each student — mini pitas, tomato sauce, and shredded cheese for the pizzas; and graham crackers, vegetarian marshmallows, and chocolate for the s’mores. I strongly suggest paper towel rolls and baby wipes for cleaning saucy fingers and mopping up spills — preparing food outside on a windy day can get hairy. I also learned the hard way to assign some students as “oven guards” while the picnic cooks — we ended up sharing our feast with an intrepid gang of hungry pigeons. Even with the spills, occasional patches of clouds, and marauding birds, all of the students had wide smiles and a newfound appreciation for the power of the sun.
Check out the one-minute video below to see what our solar cookout looked like in action!
Resources About Solar Cooking and Solar Energy
Here’s a detailed overview about renewable solar energy by “Energy Kids” from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Share the Energy Story with your students at this informational website by the California Energy Commission.
We generally associate China with environmental challenges, so it might be helpful to share this Scholastic News article about Baoding, a Chinese city that has an impressive clean energy mission.
Solar Energy International has a great FAQ page geared towards answering children’s questions about solar energy.
Scholastic blogger Stacy Burt wrote about how she incorporated the math of angles into a solar oven project with her students, and how they then extended this learning to make solar water heaters, too!
The Kids Solar Energy Book by Tilly Spetgang and Malcolm Wells is a high-level graphic novel that explains the ins and outs of solar energy for advanced young scientists and readers.
More Resources to Get Ready for Earth Day
I love teaching environmental science during Earth Month and throughout the year! It provides a meaningful rallying point for community building, persuasive writing, and social action projects, and it adds some necessary urgency to science lessons. Here are a few additional resources and ideas to build environmental awareness in your classroom.
"Eight Books for Earth Day and Beyond" is my annotated list of read-aloud books and science lessons about helping our planet.
ConEd’s Power of Green site includes lessons, activities, and an Energy Saving Poster contest.
For even more ideas, Scholastic has compiled dozens of resources on the Earth Day and the Environment Everything You Need page!
A solar cookout is just one idea to celebrate Earth Day as a community. What do you do at your school? Have you held a solar cookout? Are you interested in giving it a try? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!