Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Stove Project Sparks Global Youth Action

April 29, 2013
Photo credit: Rich Lehrer

Separated by thousands of miles, middle-school students in suburban Massachusetts are teaming up with peers in Brazil, Africa, and India on a project with lifesaving potential. By designing and building efficient cook stoves, students are learning about energy and humanitarian engineering.

They're also learning about the serious health hazards faced by some 3 billion people around the world who routinely cook with wood or charcoal. Meanwhile, their teachers are engineering a collaborative learning experience that uses global issues to engage students in STEM.

"This started as a small idea," says Rich Lehrer, eighth-grade science teacher at Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, "but it's really taking off." That's an understatement. In less than two years, the Global Efficient Cook Stove Education Project has expanded to schools in six countries. Lehrer has found support and technical assistance from the D-Lab at MIT, a hotbed of humanitarian engineering.

This real-world STEM project is generating buzz at education conferences and online events, and is a leading contender in the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge that wraps up on Monday, April 29.

With Global Youth Service Day taking place today through Sunday, April 26-28, this seems like a good time to look at the strategies that have helped to fuel this global learning project.

The Spark

Lehrer, originally from Canada, taught at international schools in Venezuela and Brazil before coming to Brookwood School six years ago. His former school in São Paulo was located next to large favela, or slum, which naturally opened classroom conversations about issues of poverty and social justice. At Brookwood, he was looking for a way to generate similar discussions in his science classroom. "Science is the perfect medium," he says, for investigating issues such as global citizenship. Energy consumption is just one possible topic. "Half the people on Earth use wood or charcoal (for cooking). That's a compelling issue," he says, "with tendrils into public health, global warming, deforestation, and children's rights."

Once he started thinking about designing efficient cook stoves as a way to focus students' inquiry, he knew he was on to something. Around the world, a growing community of engineers, makers, and development experts is working to improve stove designs and find more sustainable fuel sources. But Lehrer could find nothing in the way of educational resources to teach middle and high school students about efficient biomass stoves.

Cold Calls and Connections

Two summers ago, Lehrer had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda as recipient of a teaching fellowship from the Seven Fund. He and a colleague from Brookwood joined a cohort of teachers investigating the role of education in alleviating poverty. "That was the personal spark I needed," Lehrer reflects, to start turning ideas about global science education into action.

To prepare for the trip, Lehrer reached out to the D-Lab at MIT. It's the home base of the humanitarian engineer Amy Smith. A MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and TED fellow, she and her team work with communities around the world to devise low-cost, low-tech solutions to improve the lives of those living in poverty. Lehrer fired off an email to the D-Lab "on a whim," and was surprised to hear back almost immediately. "It turns out they were looking for ways to scale their work to high school and middle school audiences. I couldn't have written at a better time," he says. He met with D-Lab engineers before setting off to Rwanda, "and had them in the back of my mind as I traveled."

From Talking to Doing

By the time he returned to Massachusetts, Lehrer had connected with FAWE Girls School in Kigali, Rwanda. The two schools began planning person-to-person exchanges and setting up opportunities for their students to get acquainted via Skype by comparing their science education programs.

Meanwhile, eager to move from talking to doing, Lehrer planned a weeklong project to immerse his students in hands-on learning. They consulted via Skype with an engineer working in Rwanda, "and got a real appreciation for what it's like to be in charge of acquiring and using your own energy. My students were exhausted and smelling like smoke," he says, "but their conversations were amazing."

Their next challenge was to build a large biomass stove for their own campus. Engineers working in Honduras provided technical insights. They also sent them a "plancha," or grill, which serves as the cooking surface. Lehrer can see the finished masonry stove from his classroom. It has become the focal point for an outdoor classroom and gathering place, where students cook hot chocolate and pancakes for special events. "It's a symbol of the work we do," Lehrer says.

Full Steam Ahead

Global connections have expanded as more schools have joined the project, adding their own spin. Colegio Bandeirantes, a school in São Paulo, for example, uses the stove project as the jumping-off point for science fair projects.

This school year, six schools on four continents are participating in the collaborative effort. Students learn about energy through investigations and then build their own small cook stoves. They test the efficiency of different stove models, comparing their data with information gathered by their peers in other countries.

Lehrer also insists that students document their learning to help others engage in similar projects. "Each student is producing an educational tool," he explains, with a particular audience in mind. To teach students what he calls "the power of networking," Lehrer has students identify someone who can provide feedback on their work. "They have to justify their selection," he says, and then make the connection via email or phone call. "They're learning the same thing that I am: How do you get other people on board?"

Finding Allies

Lehrer doesn't sugarcoat the challenges of global collaboration. Skype calls with schools or experts on the other side of the world don't always come off as planned, and the logistical details sometimes have him waking up at 3 a.m. There have been growing pains, too, as new schools need help getting up to speed. "But once you have allies who share your vision, that feels so powerful," he adds. "It's not just me in my lab."

Lehrer has found great support for the project at his own school, where more teachers are now expressing an interest in project-based learning with a real-world focus. "When teachers see our project, the wheels turn," he says. "Global collaboration can be one more tool to open kids' eyes."

The team at D-Lab has continued to support the project, too, sharing technical insights and hosting Brookwood students on the MIT campus to see humanitarian engineering in action. (Learn more about youth outreach efforts at D-Lab).

"It all speaks to the power of a good idea," Lehrer says. Knowing that good ideas take effort to implement, he encourages his students to be fearless about networking and asking for help. "I tell them, you've got nothing to lose by sending that email. If you can speak passionately and justify the case for becoming involved, doors will open."

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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