Now we’re cookin’

Illustration by Forest Byrd

We have just three short years to see that a quarter of all the power used in New York State comes from renewable sources — solar, wind, biomass and some hydroelectricity.

This is a tall order although not as tall as the marks set by some other states — a third by 2020 in California, and two-fifths by 2040 in Hawaii.

We got a sudden jolt of confidence in our future when we watched the fourth-graders in Amy Martin’s Westmere Elementary School class on Monday afternoon. Wearing hard hats and protective gloves, they were building a solar cooker for their school.

“We’re making it to save energy, so we won’t use gas and pollute,” said Haemin Hwang.

“We got the money from NYSERDA,” said her classmate, Sean Gordon. “They’re trying to save the environment in New York.”

The kids themselves filled out the application to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which got them a $400 grant.

The completed solar cooker will be donated to the school in June, Martin said. “At the end of the year, usually dads wheel in gas grills. And gas is not a renewable resource.”

A solar cooker turns light into heat. The box cooker, like the Westmere kids constructed this week, was invented by a Swiss naturalist, Horace de Saussure, in the 1700s.

As more glass was used in the 1800s, people became aware that it trapped solar heat. “It is a known fact, and a fact that has probably been known for a long time, that a room, a carriage, or any other place is hotter when the rays of the sun pass through glass,” noted de Saussure.

He created a hot box that scientists in the 1800s used to show the relationship of the sun to the earth and its atmosphere. The atmosphere, like the glass cover of the hot box, allows most sunlight to strike the earth. When the sky is clear, about 75 percent of the sun’s radiation hits the earth, which, like the bottom of the hot box, absorbs the sunlight and releases heat. Solar heat is then trapped by the atmosphere just as it is by the hot-box glass.

Recently, a worldwide movement has put solar cookers in Third World countries since they don’t use fuel and cost nothing to run. Solar Cookers International reports sending 400 to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, helping displaced families.

In Darfur, Solar Cookers International joined with KoZon, a Dutch foundation, and the Jewish World Watch to supply refugee camps with more than 10,000 solar cookers to reduce the need of women to leave the camps to gather firewood, when they were at risk for being raped, murdered, or kidnapped.

From Africa to India, solar cookers, once they become culturally accepted, have cut the time women spend tending open fires, giving them more time to grow vegetables for their families or to make crafts to sell.

The Westmere kids understand the science behind their project and were eager to explain it when we visited on Monday.

 The kids held up a reflective panel they constructed that will catch the sun’s rays and heat their cooker. They stressed that the food won’t cook on the reflective panel; it is, instead, a heat-generating device.

“It reflects the sun,” said Sean. “The temperature will get up to as high as 140 degrees Celsius.”

“It’s a certain kind of reflection, where you can see yourself,” said Samantha Lausell, gazing at herself in the mirror-like surface.

Haley Golderman explained, “We need insulation to keep the heat inside.” The wooden structure was lined with carefully cut foil-covered insulating panels.

“We’re going to paint the grill black to absorb the heat,” said Madison Lengyel.

Angelina Regule described the method that she and her classmates are using to find the sunniest spot on the school grounds. “We used black pieces of paper and we made a design with masking tape,” she said. “We nailed it in the grass. We’ll go back tomorrow to see what faded the most. That’s how we know the sunniest spot to put the cooker.”

They were also learning life lessons as they built their cooker.

“My hands are all sweaty,” said Haemin Hwang as she put on gloves to handle the insulation material.

“That’s the price of safety,” responded Joe Hilton in a kindly tone. Hilton is Martin’s father and along with Bob Marino was helping the kids build the cooker.

The concern was returned in kind from the children.

“Be careful not to cut yourself,” said Derek Liu as his teacher sliced the edge off the panel of insulation so it was even with the frame of the cooker.

A few minutes later, another lesson was implicit as Martin handed a tape measure to Sean. “My dad says, ‘Measure twice, cut once,’” she said. Sean carefully stretched out the metal tape to measure the base of the cooker, so it could be fitted with a metal panel.

“I never paid attention to that till I was in my 20s,” said Hilton to Marino. “When you start paying for materials yourself, you measure twice.” Marino smiled and gave a knowing nod.

Finally, when the measuring was complete, Martin said that it was time to glue the insulation to the base of the cooker.

“Did she say glue it?” asked Sean with excitement in his voice.

“Yes,” responded Haemin quietly.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” shouted Sean as he brandished the glue gun.

The class mission shone as bright as the sun on Monday, and the kids were as focused as the rays that would bounce off the bright, reflective surface they had built.

“Our whole class is into saving the earth,” said Sean. “That’s why Mrs. Martin let us do this.”

The kids are eager to share their project with others in the school and envision it being used for years to come.

Two of the girls in the class created a singsong rhyme about photovoltaic cells, and some of the boys are in a band that composed a song about their project. The band is called the Tix — after a bug, like the Beatles — and the lyrics go like this: “We got the grant. We got the stuff. We got the knowledge, plus we didn’t even have to go to college. Shine, shine, shine on.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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