Clean Cookstoves: An Interdisciplinary Project

It’s hard to imagine that a task as simple as making a fire to cook a meal can have global consequences—but it does. Middle Schoolers learn what needs to be done to help solve the health and environmental problems of inefficient cookstoves.

By Margaret Pennock, Middle School Science Teacher and Department Chair

Imagine that you are a woman with five children in a small village in Rwanda. You arise before dawn each day to begin cooking for your family. Crouched over a fire in your small home with your youngest child on your back, you build a fire to heat water and make the morning meal, shooing your toddler away from the flames.

Smoke fills the space, blackening the walls and making you cough. This happens three times a day. When you aren’t cooking, you and your daughters are often walking long, dangerous distances to find, gather, and carry the heavy loads of firewood home. As trees are depleted, you must travel farther and farther.

This is reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Even those who have access to charcoal-burning or kerosene stoves still suffer from serious health problems associated with stove inefficiencies. This is why many scientists and researchers, including those at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, are dedicated to addressing these issues through the design and implementation of fuel-efficient cookstoves, also known as clean cookstoves. People are increasingly understanding that the use of clean cookstoves can help address many problems simultaneously: deforestation, global warming, human health, the welfare of women and girls, and family economics.

After learning about the carbon cycle, global warming, and climate change, my 8th grade students dive into a study of clean cookstoves. Using photographs of women cooking over three-stone fires in various regions of the world [see photo, opposite page], it takes just minutes for them to identify the problems that need to be solved. They employ design-thinking skills by identifying specific design goals, adjusting variables, and constructing two types of stoves—a 16-brick stove, and a sheet metal, single-pot model called a VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance) stove.

During this process, students are immersed in interdisciplinary study to consider the following: How are both a scientific approach and social science approach necessary to solve these environmental and health-related problems? They search for the answer the same way that scientists do: by getting their hands dirty and asking a lot more questions.


Building fires and using them to heat water in a kettle is a thrill for 8th graders—yes, they actually get to do this—but I challenge them first: How will you know that the brick and metal stoves you are building are better than cooking over a more basic, and ubiquitous, three-stone fire? Scientific testing is necessary! (Spoiler alert: Two years ago, we determined that the VITA stoves were distinctly more efficient than a three-stone fire.) We must have a protocol to test efficiency in our stoves and compare the results to the same protocol with a traditional fire.

Once this is established, we head outdoors, only to realize this task is much more challenging than we imagined: Some groups successfully build and maintain fires, while others produce flames that sputter and go out. All of us must put full effort and attention into this task while trying to avoid smoke and keeping the fire hot enough to boil water. The experience helps us begin to appreciate the circumstances that many around the world face on a daily basis—and in our case, we didn’t even have to collect the wood, cook for an extended period of time, or work in an enclosed, smoke- filled room!

Back in the classroom, we compile our class results and add them to the data from the previous years, calculating the efficiency of our stoves and three-stone fires. What have we learned so far? The 16-brick stove is less efficient than a three-stone fire. And that is the point! Not all human-constructed stoves are an improvement over the three-stone fires that people have used for millennia.

The scientific process was necessary to determine this. In the spring, my students will take their newly built VITA stoves outdoors and test them.

While scientific testing is critical to designing improved cookstoves, it is not enough. The experts at the Oregon- based Aprovecho Research Center realize that providing highly efficient stoves to a community does not mean they will be used: Successful design also requires getting to know the people who will use them and addressing the cultural practices and norms they hold dear. This is why engineering programs such as those at MIT’s D-Lab offer their students opportunities to work directly with people in the developing world as part of the design process. Here at Sidwell Friends, in an activity derived from a Peace Corps training manual, students learn common barriers to behavior change in developing countries. They then develop a list of questions about the cooking process that they would ask local people if they could conduct an interview as part of the design process. Last year, students on the Amazon Minimester trip used these questions to conduct an interview—in Spanish—with a woman in a small rural village who had no electricity and cooked over a fire. Upon return, they presented what they learned to the whole class.

While 8th graders won’t design a stove ready for use in developing communities this year, they have experienced design thinking applied to solving a real-world problem and realized that, in addition to good design, insights garnered from scientific testing and social science information gathering are necessary to improve people’s lives.

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