Solar oven spotlight

Photo: Cecelia Marshall, AZPM

University of Arizona's 'Nerd Herd' solar oven team waits for hot biscuits.

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University of Arizona freshman engineering students are learning about the power of the sun--by baking biscuits.

Students spent an October afternoon on the University of Arizona Mall huddled around cardboard boxes covered with tinfoil, slowly baking biscuit dough in these student-built solar ovens.

The Solar Oven Cook-Off Challenge is part of a semi-annual competition and also a required project for an engineering introductory course.

“It’s when all of the freshman engineers get into teams and we build a solar oven out of these cardboard boxes,” said Katie Trump, an engineering freshman. “We all have to reach a 100 degrees Celsius to pass.”

Passing this test is not the only challenge. These engineering students are also competing against each other. Building a solar oven out of a cardboard box is a complicated process.

“The strategy has been to make the best predicted temperature out of the least expensive materials out of the box. So we can get a good performance index that has a good price range,” said Chris Duel, an engineering sophomore.

Price range may not matter much to these students in the future. Despite the recent recession, engineering graduates are sought-after in the workplace: they are the second most hired major after business grads, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers recent survey.

Introducing these students to potential employers is the responsibility of Jane Hunter, UA director of engineering education enhancement.

“We are really working hard to teach students that engineering is a helping profession,” Hunter said. “[Engineering] is sometimes misrepresented. People don’t realize how important engineering is to helping people.”

Despite the profession’s prestige, engineers often get stereotyped as “geeky”. But engineering student Austin Douglas wears the “geeky” label with pride. He is captain of the team “Nerd Herd” at the solar oven bake-off challenge.

“The engineering process is 90 percent planning and 10 percent execution,” said Douglas. “You can’t just say, ‘we have to build a solar oven’ and build one willy-nilly and then keep testing it and building more and more--that’s not how things happen in the real world. That’s a waste of materials.”

Douglas is the type of engineering student W.L. Gore is trying to recruit. Gore, based in Delaware, is the manufacturer most known for Gore-Tex, a durable fabric. Gore sponsored the UA Solar Cook-Off.

This is the first time that Gore has gotten involved with this competition, said Gore spokesman, Garret Johnson.

“We’re increasing our outreach to these universities and increasing our interaction with these students so we can provide an experience in which they can interact with professional engineers in the industry and see what it’s like to be in the industry as an engineer,” said Johnson.

There are 3,000 engineering students at the UA. The National Science Foundation recently ranked the school 14th nationwide for engineering programs among public universities.

Freshman engineering students don’t need all the math or physics required in upper division engineering courses just yet, said engineering professor Kathleen Melda.

“This is a chance for them to really get a hands-on design experience without having a lot of math. I think they really learn a lot about team work,” she said.

The university and professors anticipate this annual event will draw the attention of more engineering companies who might come to campus to recruit their future workforce. The freshman students have a few more years—and solar oven-baked biscuits—to go before they get their diplomas, though.