Take a journey with me. You are 9 years old, giving up a traditional Christmas family gathering. You are driving down dusty dirt roads, delivering baked goods to relatives who live in rural areas of the Navajo Nation. While visiting, you notice that basic necessities are missing among a majority of the families, including running water and electricity.
This was me 10 years ago, encountering the struggles of some of my people. I noticed that many families’ Christmas dinners consisted of perishable food from the local gas station and tortillas made over an open fire. And that sparked an idea. I knew I wanted to pursue a dream that benefited the future of my Diné (Navajo) people. And with firewood and coal becoming scarce, I knew my dream would start by helping those living off the grid find an alternative way to prepare a well-cooked meal.
Keeping in mind the future of our land and sacred traditions that have been passed down from my grandparents, I used materials found around a typical Navajo household to construct a homemade solar oven.
Homemade solar ovens are simple, environmentally friendly, low-cost machines that can be used by those who cannot afford industrial materials. This community-focused project was designed to provide struggling families around the Navajo Nation with a low-cost, healthier alternative for cooking food that does not rely on precious natural resources like firewood.
The basic design of a homemade solar oven includes the use of two cardboard boxes, one within the other, to create a two-and-a-half-inch wall where the insulation is located. Reflectors are constructed from the attached flaps of the outside cardboard box to create a funnel structure to attract more direct sunlight.
I conducted numerous trials to compare varying materials in order to achieve the best performance. The solar oven’s performance was rated on its ability to reach high and consistent internal temperatures and the appearance and taste of the cooked food. For insulation, I tried Sudan hay, cotton, soil and shredded paper, but found that sheep’s wool was the best insulation. Black construction paper was the best inside lining, the temperature inside the homemade solar oven reached a maximum of 315 degrees Fahrenheit, which is above the recommended food-safety internal temperature. From there, the cooking started.
We prepared hot dogs, hamburgers, cookies, steaks, chicken, fish and just about every Navajo’s favorite, mutton. Boy, did my family and I eat well during trial runs. The food was tender and flavorful. The delicious smell spread through the neighborhood, and even the dogs and livestock in the area wanted to try the cooked food.
There is a high diabetes rate on the Navajo Reservation. A homemade solar oven prepares food that can be cooked in its own juices, a healthier alternative to having to add potentially harmful cooking fats.
There are a few limitations to solar cooking. A homemade solar oven, like a slow cooker, takes more time to cook a meal than a traditional oven. And of course, solar ovens will not work as efficiently in cloudy or overcast weather. However, considering the delicious, healthy food that homemade solar ovens provide, using a safe, low-cost technology and fuel source, the choice seems clear. After all, patience is a virtue!
Since this project started, my journey has taken me many places. I first showcased my project at the National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair, where I was selected as one of the finalists.At the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, California, I shared my homemade solar-oven idea through media, including the 100 People Foundation, an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and several international newspapers. I was awarded the Goethe special award, an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany with five other young scientists, during which I shared my project with local high school students and teachers.
I am still on my journey, one where I am no longer just traveling around delivering food but working to help others take a step toward a greener and healthier future. The Navajo Nation has endured harsh treatment as a result of uranium mines, power plants and environmental degradation, but the homemade solar oven can help change the hand we’ve been dealt by improving many lives, once it’s introduced to more people.
Let’s go back to that dusty dirt road on the Navajo Nation. But now it’s several years in the future. Instead of delivering baked goods, we are greeted by Navajo families preparing their Christmas dinners in solar ovens. Our conversations reveal the great benefits that solar cooking has offered to their daily lives. By bringing awareness to a small population and providing an alternative solution to a pervasive problem, we can demonstrate the importance of creating a sustainable world, starting with a simple technology like a homemade solar oven.
Raquel Redshirt (Diné) believes a broken system exists in her homeland, and vast improvements need to be made. Originally from Shiprock, New Mexico, and currently enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, she plans to return to the Navajo Nation, where she can use her knowledge to create a brighter, greener future for her people. firstname.lastname@example.org