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When engineering success is a hot potato

Mechanical engineering students Ben Renkoski, left, and Tim Duve used mirrors, cardboard boxes, newspaper and duct and aluminum foil tape to build a solar oven south of Lafferre Hall.

Some hot potatoes are easier to come by than others.

Or so members of CoE Assistant Professor Gary Solbrekken’s thermal systems design class recently found as they strove to cook baked potatoes in solar ovens of their own design. Armed with cardboard boxes, mirrors, duct tape and a host of other inexpensive materials, Solbrekken’s engineering students built and tested their homemade solar cookers on May 9 as a hands-on final examination.

“For a written exam, you have to study and memorize; for this, we got to apply our knowledge,” said student Ben Renkoski, a senior in mechanical engineering whose oven cooked a potato in two hours. “It was kind of fun and in a lot of ways more helpful.”

Fully cooking a potato requires raising its internal temperature to 212 degrees, presenting a greater design challenge than would meat or other foods that cook at lower temperatures, Solbrekken said.

Also adding to the challenge was Solbrekken’s requirement that the oven materials cost less than $40. Students met that standard by soliciting donations and using recycled materials, pressing such items as a barbeque grill cover into service.

However ingenious the design, the students enjoyed the final proof of their exam success: a steaming baked potato.

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