Chantilly eighth-grader designs solar oven for Banica

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Inside a house in the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border, women can be found tending oven fires to cook for their families. The smoke from the fire can be a health hazard, and the cost of fuel can be expensive. Outside the house, the sun shines long and hot. If only there was a way to harness this free energy to cook. 

This was the problem Mary Hitchcock, an eighth-grader at St. Timothy School in Chantilly, set out to address with her STEM Fair project. 

This year for the first time, St. Timothy School hosted a STEM Fair instead of a science fair. The brainchild of Leslie Lipovski, the diocesan assistant superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, tasked students with doing STEM-focused projects using either the engineering or scientific method. Then the eighth-graders displayed their findings using digital media. 

“I was totally blown away,” said Nicole Testanie, the school’s STEM Fair coordinator. “They took our vision and made it a reality.”

Using the engineering method, Hitchcock researched and designed eight prototypes until she had a solar oven that could reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit. 

She used wood, painted black, to create an open top box, and lined the interior of the box with tin foil. Her early prototypes did not reach the necessary temperatures. After researching the problem, she decided to insert a smaller cardboard box, also wrapped in foil, inside the wood box. In the gap between the wood and cardboard box she stuffed crumpled newspaper for added insulation. She inserted a wire grate on the floor of the cardboard box to keep a pot from burning a hole in the bottom. She   added reflectors to later prototypes by using hanger wire and foil, which increased the surface area reflecting the sun’s rays into the oven. 

At the early April fair, she successfully cooked a pot of soup using her solar oven.

Her goal is to perfect the design until it can reach more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Once she has a prototype, Hitchcock hopes to test the solar oven’s effectiveness in Bánica. Because a solar oven takes longer to cook food than a traditional oven, it cannot replace the stove completely. But used correctly, it could decrease the time and money families burn by using gas or wood stoves exclusively.

The rising ninth-grader will attend Paul VI Catholic High School in the fall and is working with a group from the school to help transport her oven to Bánica when they go on their summer mission trip. The oven will be disassembled for easy transportation and then reassembled once it arrives.

“Being able to help people around the world inspired me to do this project,” said Hitchcock. “I really enjoy cooking, so being able to take that interest and help others is what made me want to do it.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018