Woodbury Middle School students headed outside last week –  not for exercise, but for cooking.

On May 22, sixth graders put into practice solar ovens that they have spent the last three weeks designing and building. The ovens were used to cook s’mores.

“It really applies math and science to a real situation,” said sixth grade science teacher Dave Rafferty. “It challenges all students to step up their game.”

The solar oven project is part of a five-year grant through the University of Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education Center received an $8 million grant from the National Science Foundation in order to partner with 200 Twin Cities metro-area teachers to increase science and math learning through engineering for 15,000 students in fourth through eighth grades.

Rafferty, along with roughly a dozen other District 833 teachers, participated in professional development and curriculum writing workshops last summer where students worked to develop classroom curriculum focused on science concepts, meaningful data analysis and measurement.

Each classroom that is a part of EngTEAMS, Engineering to Transform the Education of Analysis, Measurement, and Science, assigned its students a real-world engineering scenario that students had to develop a solution for.

In Rafferty’s class, students were tasked with designing functioning solar ovens for children in Afghanistan who are unable to collect enough firewood.

Rafferty said the concept is based on an organization that designs solar ovens for developing countries.

Rafferty’s students studied the solar ovens as part of their heat transfer unit.

After learning the concepts related to the solar ovens, students then went to work identifying which materials and what designs to use for their solar ovens.

In addition to designing the ovens in accordance with certain dimensions, students also had to use materials that fell within a certain budget, much like a real-world situation.

Some of the materials used for the solar ovens included cardboard, foil, felt, plastic, tag board and bubble wrap.

The goal was to heat the solar ovens to at least a temperature of 150 degrees.

Rafferty said nearly 80 percent of the ovens reached 150 degrees when used under heat lamps, but outdoors, where the variables are more uncontrolled, roughly 50 percent of the ovens achieved the appropriate temperature. One oven actually reached 180 degrees.

“We really emphasize that failure is not a bad thing,” Rafferty said. “You’re learning every single step of the way.

“Plus, nine out of 10 times engineers fail at things.”

Rafferty said the solar oven project is a great learning activity for students because it teaches them how to apply math and science concepts, teaches them record keeping and communication and forces students to work in teams.

“It’s a very well rounded curriculum; it’s an all-encompassing activity,” he said. “There’s multiple ways that students can shine.”