The Parabolic Cooker Project: Students Solve a 3d Problem Using 2d Math

Math students at Nueva were challenged to take their theoretical knowledge of parabolas and design parabolic cookers that could boil water.

Photo of Michael Peller
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As a math teacher, I tried sparking curiosity in my students by asking them what would happen if you took a 2-dimensional parabola and rotated it 3-dimensionally. Then I encouraged them to not only imagine it, but build the result. This became the Parabolic Cooker Project and allowed students to move from the classroom to a lab environment and bring abstract math concepts to real-world problem solving.

The creativity demonstrated in design and building was impressive. Some teams’ paraboloids showed vertical orientations, looking like upside-down umbrellas to observers. Others used a horizontal approach using strips of reflective material within a shell to capture the sun’s energy, and one team created a parabolic trough that heated the water held within a stretch of pipe. In the end, heating 500 ml of water to the boiling point of 212° Fahrenheit proved too difficult, but teams successfully achieved temperatures ranging from 75° to 154° — after just 10 minutes in the sun!

You can learn more about project this Nueva School page.

How does this idea help to spark student curiosity?

Students get to work across disciplines, put their questioning skills to use, work in teams, and must create a design that is completely original.

What grade level is this idea most appropriate for?

  • High School (9-12)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Cole Godvin

Hi Mike,
This is one of my favorite Design Thinking projects I've seen on campus! Might we do this again this year? And might we cook (or heat up) some delicious snacks? Hope this one moves forward!

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