Business students investigating viability of sun ovens for Haiti


It sounded like a neat idea. Introduce sun ovens to poor villages in Haiti and help the people there become less dependent on charcoal, an expensive form of energy that is stripping the island of its tropical rain forest and destroying the environment. But business and environmental students at Fairfield University are finding out that theory is easier than practice.

Image: Tucker and Tellis

Dr. Michael Tucker, left, associate professor of finance, and Dr. Winston Tellis, director of undergraduate for the School of Business, display an oven that uses the heat from the sun to cook meals.

And that's o.k., says Dr. Michael Tucker, associate professor of finance who is teaching the course. "That's what experiential teaching is all about; learning that problems you didn't anticipate exist and that you have to find creative ways to overcome obstacles that will surely get in the way."

Students were asked to research the rural economy of Haiti and the small village of Fondwa in particular where the solar ovens were to be introduced. They investigated the environmental issues involved and estimated how many trees would be saved each year with the introduction of one oven.

Students checked out import restrictions into Haiti and investigated the weather patterns and sunshine index. They found that a Sun Oven manufactured by Burns-Milwaukee after two hours in the early September New England sun reached only 250 degrees. Transported to Haiti, the oven reached that same temperature in just 10 minutes and cooked twice as fast as charcoal.

Students also considered the viability of manufacturing solar cookers on site, including where raw materials would come from and the cost. They discussed the strategy of inviting charcoal manufacturers to participate in the new venture since the ovens would diminish the market for charcoal which is already threatened by the loss of trees.

In September, three sun ovens were delivered to the School of Business at a cost of $180 each and students were able to examine and test them. Durably constructed, there was a mechanism that allowed the pot to stay upright even if the oven was set on a hillside. One drawback: the ovens could only accommodate small pots.

In October, Dr. Winston Tellis, director of undergraduate programs in the School of Business, traveled to Haiti to deliver two of the ovens to the peasants of Fondwa. Traveling over 20 miles of bumpy roads from Port au Prince, he encountered great interest and many questions from the villagers about this new way of cooking that used the sun's heat. Plantains were the first items to be cooked and villagers circulated the oven among themselves and wanted to know if they could build their own model.

In spite of that initial success, recent reports back from Haiti say that the people have returned to the traditional charcoal, although one of the ovens is being used at a clinic to sterilize medical instruments.

"It just points up to us that you need someone on site to help people change such a basic way of doing something so essential to their everyday lives," says Dr. Tucker.

Such lessons, he says, are invaluable to business students. "They are learning that business is more than price and product. The comprehensive view they are seeing of bringing a project from conception to completion will serve them well when they enter the business world."

And a final lesson the students learn is not to give up when you have a good idea. The School of Business is already considering a larger project in Haiti through a graduate course in International Environmental Management and Policy. They are looking at a very large Sun Oven called the Villager which uses back-up propane for cloudy conditions and can bake hundreds of loaves of bread per day. The two sites they are investigating are Fondwa and a bakery in Port au Prince.

Projects such as these are what caught the attention of the AACSB-International Association of Management Education, the premiere accrediting agency for schools of business, which invited faculty from Fairfield's School of Business to present for an unprecedented four years in a row at its largest annual meeting, the Continuous Improvement Symposium.

The point was not just the attention-getting projects the faculty had developed (they also had students building Piper J-3 Cub model airplanes to one-quarter scale and developing ways to market Newman's Own products to college students), but the curriculum changes they made to create a cross-functional and experiential learning approach to business education.

The idea of revamping the undergraduate program four years ago came with the endorsement of the GE Foundation which provided a $250,000 grant. Discarding the traditional "compartmentalized" approach to business education, the faculty devised a curriculum that incorporated marketing, management, accounting, information systems and finance into two three-semester courses, BU 100 (Business Decision Making) and BU 200 (Creating a Competitive Advantage). Team teaching also is a staple of the program; two to four faculty meet with each class, integrating their own disciplines while serving as models for how to work in a team.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on February 1, 1998