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'Solar, So Good!' Project 1: Let's Make a Solar Oven!

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This Maker Project is part of a unit plan, “Solar, So Good” designed for the Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy in 2023. In this unit, students analyse the feasibility of solar power as a form of renewable energy in their communities. Students will explore how solar power works at different scales, and look at examples of how the energy of the Sun has been harnessed to support our daily lives.

This unit consists of four Maker projects, each requiring 8-10 hours of classroom time. They are designed to be carried out in order, but work well as standalone projects as well. The four projects are:

  • Project 1: Building a Solar Oven (this project)
  • Project 2: Building a Solar Lamp
  • Project 3: Building a Solar Charger
  • Project 4 (Summative Assessment): Designing a Solar Powered Home


Projects in this unit plan align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and adopt a pedagogical framework rooted in the Engineering Design Process (EDP) and project-based learning (PBL). By incorporating these principles, these Maker projects aims to foster innovative thinking and practical problem-solving skills among students.

Download the unit overview and full standards alignment here.

An overview of the three lessons involved in this Maker Project is provided below:

Lesson Learning Objectives

Steps in the Engineering Design Process

Project Details




  • Heat transfer principles
  • Working of solar oven
  • Introduction to the thermal properties of materials
  • Infer the thermal properties of the various components of a solar oven


Students read about a fictionalized account of a family in the global South who face constant electricity outages. They are called upon to design a solar oven for the family. They are introduced to criteria & constraints for the project. Key criteria: temperature within oven.








  • Research different types of solar cookers


  • Plan the design of solar oven in groups


  • Incorporate design elements


  • Build their solar oven using materials


Students investigate existing solar oven concepts to unpack how they work, and learn about the Physics concepts behind them. Students learn about the different factors that affect the function of a solar oven.


Students work in small teams to brainstorm possible solutions, drawing on their knowledge of heat transfer, thermodynamics and other related concepts to optimally design the solar oven for maximum output.


Students develop a decision matrix to evaluate their solutions, and identify a solar oven solution to prototype.


Students prototype their solar oven, using given materials.




  • Test the solar oven
  • Record the qualitative and quantitative performance of their solar ovens
  • Present their solar ovens to the class
  • Reflect on their experience and suggest improvements


Students test their prototypes qualitatively, by cooking S’mores, and quantitatively, by taking temperature measurements over time.


Students reflect on their experiences and think of ways to improve their solar ovens.


How does a solar oven gain heat and cook food?


I can understand how solar ovens work and identify the different factors involved in the effective function of a solar oven.



It’s Day 1! Students will familiarize themselves with their peers and groupmates. They will be introduced to the design brief for the first maker project, and thereafter learn about heat transfer principles to understand how a solar oven works. They will also be introduced to the thermal properties of materials, and infer the thermal properties of the various components of a solar oven.

External Resources:





Copies needed


Projectable slides for Day 1 lesson.

0 (all digital)

Stations Sheet

For stations activity

1 per student

Letter paper (or cardstock!)

For name tents

1 per student

Day 1 Worksheet


1 per student


Click here for the material list for this project.

Detailed lesson plan:


Teaching Moves


Welcome students to the course. Introduce yourself, then invite students to introduce themselves before playing the icebreaker in the next slide.


Icebreaker: Two Truths and a Lie

  • Introduce the game to the group by explaining that this is a fun icebreaker activity to help them get to know each other better.
  • Explain that the game is called Two Truths and One Lie and it involves each person in the group sharing three statements about themselves, two of which are true and one of which is false.
  • Tell the group that the goal of the game is to guess which statement is the lie.
  • Instruct the group on the game rules, which involve sharing three statements and having the others guess which one is a lie. 
  • Emphasize that one statement must include a previous experience working in groups.
  • The person who guesses the most lies correctly wins.

How to make the groups?

  • For this game, it's best to divide the students into smaller groups of 4-5 people. This grouping can remain for the rest of the unit - i.e. students will complete their maker projects through this grouping.
  • This ensures that everyone in the group has a chance to share their statements and that everyone in the group has a chance to guess which statement is the lie.
  • If there are an odd number of students, the teacher can participate in one of the groups or assign a student to be a "floater" who moves between groups to even out the numbers.

What should I do in case I have a large number of students?

  • If the teacher has a large number of students and it's not feasible to have everyone play in small groups, there are a few options.
  • Option 1: Split the class into smaller groups and have each group play the game simultaneously in different parts of the room. The teacher can circulate around the room to answer questions and ensure that everyone is participating.
  • Option 2: Have students play the game in pairs instead of in small groups. Each student can take turns sharing their statements and guessing which statement is the lie. The teacher can circulate around the room to answer questions and ensure that everyone is participating.
  • Option 3: Have students play the game as a whole class. The teacher can call on students one at a time to share their statements, and the whole class can work together to guess which statement is the lie. This option may take longer, but it allows everyone to participate in the game.


Introduce students to the unit, in particular the theme of “Solar Power”

Invite students to key in their response to the question, “What is one word that comes to your mind when you think of the word ‘Solar’?” Teachers should set this up to display as a wordcloud using browser-based software like Mentimeter.


These slides are optional slides to provide more background on solar power.

Slide 7 - Archimedes’ Death Ray

  • If time permits, teachers might show a snippet from this Mythbusters episode which attempts to recreate Archimedes’ “death ray”. Spoiler alert - they fail spectacularly!
  • Archimedes' "death ray" is just one example of ancient attempts to harness the energy of the sun.
  • There were other ancient civilizations that attempted to harness solar energy, such as the Egyptians who constructed simple solar cells near the Great Pyramids, and the Greeks who built sunrooms to capture the sun's warmth.
  • Students can be encouraged to consider how these early attempts to harness solar energy paved the way for modern solar technology.


Share that solar power has been gradually growing in terms of the share of total energy production in the US over the years. 

Ask students about their observations of the graph. Possible observations below:

  • Solar power has increased over the last few years
  • Solar power is projected to increase over the next few years (students may also question how these projections were made - if so, teachers can point towards additional federal/state/private investment in solar power; see resources)
  • Total energy production is projected to increase over the next few years
  • Electricity generated from solar sources is projected to increase as a proportion of total electricity generation over the next few decades (~5% today, to 20% by 2050).


Solar power has untapped potential to generate electricity that the US needs. Play the video, and ask students to consider the following:

  • What is the main message of the video? Do you agree with it?
    • A: Main message: we should double down on solar energy, it has great potential to meet our energy needs
    • A: Accept multiple answers to the second question - they might agree with the message of the video, or they might be skeptical. Teacher may wish to probe to find out more about their thinking on both counts.
  • What other considerations do you think we should consider when calculating the potential of solar power? 
    • A: Accept a variety of answers to the second question, e.g. transmission of solar power from point of generation to point of use, storage costs of solar power, global warming…


At the same time, we’re struggling to properly exploit the potential of solar. Play he video, and ask students to consider the following:

  • Given the enormous potential of solar power, why do you think Tesla is still struggling to deploy it around the US?
    • A: They have struggled to find a cost-effective solution that is sufficient durable and can be used for a long time
  •  Now, how would you describe solar power in one word? Is it the same word you chose at the start of the lesson?
    • A: Accept a variety of answers. For students who change their minds, probe to find out more about their thinking


Run through the unit overview and objectives of the lesson. Highlight the Big Question and share that we will revisit it at each project.


Ask if students are familiar with the EDP and play the video.

Share that each project will flow according to the Engineering Design Process (EDP). 

Highlight that the EDP is how engineers in the real world design solutions to pressing problems, and we will be using a similar process throughout the unit.


Clarify that this is the version of the EDP we will be using. Despite superficial differences between this version and that from the video in the previous slide, the fundamental principles are the same. 


Ask if students have tried to start a fire while camping - discuss their experiences and challenges doing so. Tell students, “Now, we will see the challenges and dangers faced by a group of people in Africa when trying to build cooking fires.”

  • Play the video summarizing the challenges faced by the region.
  • Based on the video, ask students to verbally share the energy and deforestation challenges faced by residents, and the negative impacts these challenges have on the local community.
  • Note: The video shows an ‘outsider’ from the UK proposing to use solar ovens to address the energy challenges faced by the Botswana people. Some students may find this ‘white savior’ approach problematic. If appropriate, teachers can facilitate a discussion on the sensitivities behind proposing and implementing solutions to developing world challenges. 

Distribute the Design Brief. Introduce the challenge of designing and implementing a sustainable cooking solution that can provide reliable and affordable access to clean energy for cooking in the Nyakach region.

Discuss the importance of considering the cultural, economic, and environmental factors when designing and implementing sustainable solutions for energy access and deforestation challenges.


Introduce the concept of solar cookers and explain that they can provide a sustainable and safe alternative to traditional cooking methods.

Ask learners:

  • How does this work? (Encourage them to consider the construction of the solar cooker, and how the marshmallows within are cooked.)
  • What do you think are the materials needed to create a Solar Cooker? (Encourage them to study the solar cooker in the image closely, and think about the role that the different materials play in cooking food.)
  • What should the solar cooker be able to do? Under what conditions should it be able to function? (Probe learners to think about the context of use - would it look different if it was used in sub-saharan Africa vs. in their backyard?)

The intent of the questions above are (i) to provoke excitement, and (ii) to get students to consider the design & function of solar cookers from first principles.


Discuss the design specifications:

  • Discuss the importance of cost-effectiveness in the design of the solar cooker, particularly for use in developing countries where resources may be limited.
  • Emphasize the importance of passive solar energy in the operation of the cooker and why it is essential to have a solar cooker that doesn't rely on external power sources or fuel.
  • Explain the optimal time of operation for a solar cooker and why it's crucial to have ample sunlight available during the cooking time.
  • Discuss the safe cooking temperatures that the solar cooker should be able to reach and maintain and why it's important to consider this factor when designing a solar cooker.


Use the acronym D.A.R.E to guide the discussion of how a solar cooker functions.

Explain each step of the acronym:

  • D: Discuss how the reflective surfaces direct sunlight onto the cooking area.
  • A: Discuss how the black materials absorb all wavelengths of visible light and transform it into heat energy.
  • R: Discuss how insulation, lids, and other methods are used to retain heat inside the cooking space and minimize heat loss.
  • E: Discuss how solar cooking is a healthy and sustainable way to cook food and eat it using only the power of the sun.


Introduce the concept of radiation, convection and conduction, as well as the related concept of conductivity.

  • Heat can be transferred by three mechanisms: conduction, convection, and radiation.
  • Convection is the transfer of heat through a fluid by the combined effects of conduction and fluid motion. Convection can occur in fluids such as gases and liquids. In the example, convection happens when the water in the pot is heated up. Heat is transferred from hotter parts of the liquid to colder parts.
  • Radiation is the transfer of heat through electromagnetic waves, and is independent of any medium. Radiation can occur in a vacuum or in a gas, liquid, or solid. In the example, radiation happens when heat is transmitted from the electrical heating coil to anything you place near it. That’s why your hand feels hot when you place it close to a heating coil.
  • Conduction is the transfer of heat through a material without any net motion of the material itself. Conduction occurs within a solid or between solids that are in contact with each other. In the example, conduction happens when heat is transferred from the handle of the pot, to the hand in contact with the handle.
    • The thermal conductivity of a material is a measure of its ability to conduct heat. Does the pot handle have high or low thermal conductivity? (A: Low - it is a thermal insulator)


Explain the concepts of reflectivity and absorptivity as it applies to radiation.

  • Reflectivity: how effective a material is at reflecting radiation. Ask students if a mirror has high or low reflectivity (A: High).
  • Absorptivity: how effective a material is at absorbing radiation. Ask students if a sweater has high or low absorptivity (A: High).


Explain that knowing what materials to use in the solar cooker requires an understanding of their properties. Selecting the right materials will enable the solar cooker to function optimally.

Invite students to fill up Activity 1 in their worksheet. Sample answers are below.




Example of material that has high levels of this property

Example of material that has low levels of this property


How well a material absorbs radiation

Metals (copper, aluminum, zinc…)

Black surfaces

Wool, cotton, newspaper


How well a material conducts heat




How well a material reflects radiation

Polished or shiny surfaces

Black surfaces


Get students to share their responses and address any misconceptions which occur.


Get students to form groups of 4-5 students each. Set up four stations, one for each component of the solar oven:

  • Reflector
  • Absorber plate
  • Cover
  • Insulator

Students will circulate between each station, reading the information presented there and completing Activity 2 in their worksheet. Answers are presented below:

Once students have completed the worksheet, provide the answers on the screen and invite groups to check against their own answers. Address any questions or misconceptions which come up.


Consolidate learning by sharing that using materials with the appropriate thermal properties is crucial to building an efficient solar oven.


Invite students to complete the exit ticket and hand the worksheet in for checking.



How should my solar oven look like? What materials should I use?


I can apply an understanding of thermal energy to construct a simple solar oven.



Today, students will research different types of solar cookers before designing their solar oven in groups. Students will be encouraged to incorporate design elements from other solar cookers into their own. They will also build their solar oven using materials provided.

External Resources:



Copies needed

Slides for Day 2

For presentation


Worksheets for Day 2

Student worksheets

1 per student

Aluminum foil

For prototyping

As reflected in material list

Black paper

For prototyping

As reflected in material list

Pizza box

For prototyping

As reflected in material list


For prototyping

As reflected in material list


For prototyping

As reflected in material list

Black tape

For prototyping

As reflected in material list


For prototyping

As reflected in material list


Detailed lesson plan:


Teaching moves


Recap previous day’s activities and set the agenda for the day. 

Ensure students are seated in their groups of 3-4 per group.


Invite students to assign roles to each member of the group, completing Activity 1 in the process.

If needed, explain that role assignment is helpful to ensure that all members of the group are equally engaged in the project, and to ensure that responsibilities are divided amongst all members of the group.


Explain to the students that there are different types of solar cookers, and they will be reading about some of them in detail.

For teacher’s information:

  • Box Cooker: A box cooker is a simple design that uses a well-insulated box with a glass or plastic cover to trap heat. Food is placed inside the box and cooked by the sun's rays. Box cookers are typically easy to build and can be used to cook a variety of foods.
  • Panel Cooker: A panel cooker is made of several reflective panels arranged around a pot or container. The panels reflect sunlight onto the pot, heating up the food inside. Panel cookers are lightweight and portable, making them a popular choice for camping or outdoor activities.
  • Parabolic Cooker: A parabolic cooker uses a large, curved mirror to concentrate sunlight onto a small area, heating up food quickly and efficiently. Parabolic cookers are often used in commercial settings and can reach very high temperatures.

Tiny Watts Calculations | American Solar Energy Society


Invite students to complete Activity 2 according to the protocol on the slide.

Students may use their laptops, phones or other devices for this activity. Recap expectations of technology use - students should use devices only for the purpose of the activity.


Invite students to complete Activity 3 and 4 in their groups. 

Once they have completed Activity 3, they should first show their design to the teacher. Teacher to assess the completed design before instructing the group to collect requisite materials and commence Activity 4.

Materials should be located in an area near the teachers’ table for teacher’s easy access and oversight. Students should be instructed to take only the materials they need for prototyping, so that there are sufficient materials for all groups.

The teacher should be available to answer any questions the students may have during the prototype creation process. They should also monitor the progress of each group and provide guidance or suggestions as needed. The educator should encourage the students to work collaboratively and share their ideas and insights with one another.


Students to complete the Closing Activity - Rose, Thorn, Bud. This framework allows for mindful reflection on the engineering design process, as well as the experience of working in a group.

If time permits, students can share with a shoulder partner. Alternatively, the teacher can ask for volunteers to share their rose, thorns and buds with the whole class.


Brief students on the next day’s plan.



How can I improve the design of my solar oven based on its performance?


I can determine ways to improve my solar oven, based on an objective assessment of effectiveness



It’s testing time! Students will test their solar oven in the open (we hope it’s a hot sunny day, else students will use candle warmers or similar to simulate the radiant energy of the sun). When doing so, they’ll record the qualitative and quantitative performance of their solar ovens. After presenting their solar ovens to the class, students will reflect on their experience and suggest improvements to their own solar ovens.

External Resources: N/A



Copies needed

Slides for Day 2



Worksheets for Day 2

Student worksheets

1 per student

Oven mitts OR heat resistant tool

To handle solar oven during testing

1 per group


To measure interior temperature of solar oven

1 per group


Detailed lesson plan:


Teaching moves


Introduce the lesson to students. Share the overview of the lesson for the day. 


Introduce the testing phase to the students and explain the importance of monitoring and recording the temperature of the solar oven.

Ask students: How might we test the effectiveness of their solar oven, before pushing the design out to mass production? Accept various responses.

Break down the difference between quantitative and qualitative indicators used in testing.


Share with students the measures that we will be using to determine the effectiveness of their solar cookers. 

Ask students about the procedures they would take to measure these indicators, and the equipment they might require.


Brief students on the procedures and equipment required to test the solar oven:

  • Instruct the students to place the food in the solar oven and set a timer for 35-40 minutes.
  • Ask the students to observe and record the temperature of the solar oven at regular intervals (e.g., every 5-10 minutes) using a thermometer.
  • Encourage the students to take note of any fluctuations in temperature and make any necessary adjustments to the solar oven (e.g., repositioning the reflectors, adjusting the angle of the absorber plate) to maintain a consistent temperature.
  • After the cooking time is complete, have the students carefully remove the food from the solar oven and test its readiness (e.g., using a thermometer to check the internal temperature).

Remind the students to follow safety procedures when handling the solar oven, such as wearing oven mitts or using a heat-resistant tool to remove the food.

Distribute materials as necessary:

  • Oven mitts/heat resistant tool
  • Thermometer

Tell students to complete Activity 1 in their groups as they are testing their solar ovens. 


After all groups have tested their solar ovens, conduct a gallery walk allowing students to view each others’ solar ovens. Stay and stray = one group member remains with their solar oven, while the others move from group to group. Presenters should share according to the protocol provided in the slide.

** To allow presenters to view the other solar ovens, teachers may prompt presenters to informally make a round and view the other ovens at the conclusion of the gallery walk.


Students complete Activity 2 in their small groups.

Instruct the students to compare the performance of their solar oven to the design specifications and discuss any successes or challenges they encountered during the testing phase.

Ask the students to reflect on their solar oven design and identify any areas that could be improved. Encourage them to think creatively and consider different approaches.

Have the students work in pairs or small groups to brainstorm potential improvements. They can draw sketches or diagrams to help visualize their ideas.

Additionally, suggest that students look at designs from other groups for inspiration and potential improvements.

Here are some possible areas of improvement that students can consider:

  1. Increasing the efficiency of the oven: This could include improving the reflectivity of the reflector or finding materials with higher thermal conductivity for the absorber plate.
  2. Enhancing the durability of the oven: This could include using stronger materials for the frame or finding a more durable cover material.
  3. Improving the portability of the oven: This could include finding lighter weight materials or reconfiguring the design for easier transportation.
  4. Optimizing the cooking time: This could include adjusting the angle of the reflector or improving the placement of the absorber plate to maximize solar radiation.
  5. Improving the safety of the oven: This could include finding a cover material that is more resistant to shattering or finding ways to make the oven more stable in windy conditions.
  6. Improving the usability of the oven: This could include finding ways to make it easier to adjust the angle of the reflector or incorporating features that make it easier to place and remove food from the oven.


Summarize the Solar Oven maker project, making reference to the different stages in the EDP. Mention that the next project will also involve using solar energy, but this time we will use solar energy to power an electrical circuit. 




Comments (1)

Victor Pereira
01 Sep 2023
Overall, the solar project was an engaging and accessible project that introduced students to solar energy in a physics classroom. The lesson introduced students to the design process and was a hands-on learning experience that promoted creativity and collaboration. The one way that I would consider enhancing this lesson is based on the last day when students were testing their solar ovens. Specifically, thinking about incorporating a focus on either of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations or Analyzing Data. For PCOI, focusing on a controlled experiment and reducing external variables (placement of solar oven, ambient temperature, location, time of date, etc.). For data analysis, it would be helpful to have incorporated expectations for data collection (qualitative or quantitative) and for any calculations (e.g., percent increase). Lastly, considerations for what a final "report" would look like - either focused on discussing the data or redesign opportunities.