A Maker’s Journey to Help Refugees Cook Food with the Sun

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A Maker’s Journey to Help Refugees Cook Food with the Sun

Last week we collectively experienced something special. A natural phenomenon, the solar eclipse occurred on August 21. It won’t occur again until April 8, 2024. The solar eclipse was visible across the United States for the first time since June 8, 1918.

In honor of the sun, let’s celebrate a San Diego maker who has cooked with the sun since the 1970’s: Sharon Clausson, creator of the Copenhagen Solar Cooker.

The Copenhagen design

I had a chance to meet with Sharon at her home in sunny Point Loma. This is where she and her husband, Glen, have a wonderful Maker Lab complete with all the bells and whistles one might need to create — CNC router, 3D printer, laser cutter, and so much more!

Sharon with some solar cookers

Her Maker Story

She shared her story, vision, and passion for cooking with the sun.

Her idea was sparked during a camping trip with her family to the Sierras. She found herself at a loss as she was thinking through light and packable solutions that wouldn’t require her to pack in the fuel and the stove for a cooking range. Even a small portable camp stove weighs a ton when you pack in and out.

After the trip, she got to thinking about how to really make this idea work. She went to the library and picked up a book by Hungarian American scientist and inventor Maria Telkes. Telkes created one of the first ovens for daily use.

The Telkes design could generate a piping hot temperature of 428°F.

The Telkes model

Sharon was inspired and got to work. She enrolled in a metalworking class to replicate the metal model proposed by Telkes. “I was rather rebellious then,” remembers Sharon. “The men treated me like I couldn’t do anything. No girls enrolled in metalworking at that time. So what I did was play a game called ‘Tool Wars.'” As she explained the game to me, it turned out to be something like a one-upmanship of sorts, or a one-upWOMANship in her case. She reflected, “We’d compare the tools each one of us had. For instance, the first person would say, ‘I have a tool press’ and the second person would say, ‘Well, I have a tool press and a bandsaw’ and so on. I always wanted a horizontal boring machine because no one had one of those. It’s an industrial machine. I grew up with three boys so you can say I was competitive.” Her story helped me understand how she and Glen came to make an incredible labyrinth of a makerspace, housing just about any tool you might need to make.

Sharon showed me the first model she created in her metal working class from the Telkes design. It’s a much clunkier version of her current model.

Design Process

Once she completed the project, she immediately thought of how to improve upon it because the purpose was to create a lightweight design for camping. Sharon followed the design process that most innovators and scientific method enthusiasts use: ideate, research, design, prototype, test, and iterate. Between 2002–2004 she made about 25 different prototypes. Here are a few of the models she showed me from that time to the present. She has solar models which average temperatures of 250°F–475°F.

Work with Refugees

What’s interesting about some of her work is her commitment to providing a low-cost solution for people with challenging situations, such as the refugee population in Kenya, who have difficulty collecting firewood for cooking.

YouTube player

She collaborated with the San Diego Rotary, San Diego students, and other partners to create a low-cost model, the Haines Solar Cooker, that serves the refugee population. She mentioned the importance of the specific design in ensuring the project’s success. Specifically, a change from diagonal to straight line design. The way the ridges are arranged makes the difference in how heat is generated. Notice the difference in design between the Haines design below and the Copenhagen design above.

The end product for use for the refugee project was a combination of both design elements of the Copenhagen and the Haines, which is now known as the Haines/Copenhagen Solar Cooker.

One benefit for the refugees, beyond using the solar cookers for their own personal cooking, is that they can sell to their neighbors as a small side business. Sharon is emphatic in her desire to help those in need. “Why should any child die because the water is unsafe? I have a tool that can help those children. I am good at helping those people reaching others who are on the ground and can help.”

Teaching with Solar Cooking

Solar cooking can be a wonderful way to incorporate project based learning into the classroom. Sharon’s website mentions the importance: “Teachers take note, this is a great tool for teaching heat radiation, conduction, convection, and solar energy.” This doesn’t even include applying concepts of algebra, geometry, and calculus to determine optimal design or solar math. Even with the added natural phenomenon of the solar eclipse, testing solar cooking heat outputs and calculating variations would provide a lot of opportunity for teachers who have project based learning in mind. Just think of the possibilities!

What’s Next for Sharon?

In October, she will be at Maker Faire San Diego. In January, she is collaborating on her first scientific paper and presentation with a colleague in Portugal. She also talked about writing a lesson plan for teachers to use her solar cooker in a project based learning classroom. We may even see a solar cooking recipe book coming out soon, as her favorite thing to bake in the solar cooker are chocolate chip cookies. Cookies baked by the piping hot sun — a rather yummy note to end on if you ask me!

Find Out More

Check out her open source designs for educational purposes. You can also purchase the solar cooker.

Don’t forget, she’ll be at Maker Faire San Diego on October 7-8!

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Becky LeBret

Becky is Executive Director of Next Ed Research, an education nonprofit which collaborates with makers, educators, and science aficionados to uncover innovative models in education. She works to create a precision-based learning environment through human-centered design. As a maker she relishes in succulent arrangements, edible gardens, and indulges in the fine art of vermicompost.

View more articles by Becky LeBret