Meet Sam Lindgren — Selling Sun Buckets to the Next Generation
Sam Lindgren is a Ph.D. Candidate in Agricultural and Biological Engineering and a member of iSEE’s Stored Solar Stove research team. While her teammates work to technically perfect the “Sun Bucket” solar-powered clean cooking device, she examines the communications and relationship-building needs for adoption of the device.
User-centered design is a big focus of the Solar Stove group — Principal Investigator Bruce Elliott-Litchfield and his teammates are committed to building a product that meets all the needs of the users.
Even when the technology is right, Lindgren said, adoption doesn’t always happen:
“(I’ve found that) there needs to be a lot of follow-up support and communication to keep people using something that’s new,” she said. “Even if someone is really interested in it, it’s very easy to fall back into old habits.
“I see it with myself. I’ll give up drinking soda for two months, but then I slide back, even though I know I shouldn’t because it’s not healthy for me. Ongoing support, communication, and education with the end user is really important.”
Listening to women is by far the most important piece. All over the world — in countries developed or underdeveloped or somewhere in between — women do most of the cooking. Their perspectives and feedback are essential. What do they need, and what do they wish they could do that they can’t do now?
Lindgren and her teammates have made several trips to communities in the Navajo Nation at the Four Corners region of the United States and to partner organizations in Haiti to observe women cooking, to learn the ways that they cook, and to see how their children interact in the kitchen.
During visits with fire cookers, Lindgren enthusiastically shares about being a mom. She also shares that she frequently uses her own Sun Bucket to cook meals for her family.
“I thought that the first question people were going to ask us when we go to a different country to show them the product is, ‘Do you cook with one of these at home?’ and I thought the answer should be yes,” she said.
So, she took home a Sun Bucket prototype and started cooking on it. It turned out to be not just a great data collection and product test opportunity, but also a way of sharing the solar stove research with the public. To share photos of meal prep with the research team, thus influencing the design of newer iterations of the device, Lindgren started a blog called “Cooking with Sun Buckets.”
“Because I didn’t make it private — and, you know, there is something for everyone on the internet — there are people who are following it regularly,” she said. She estimates the blog has had a few thousand hits in less than a year.
When she’s not gathering data to drive user-centered design or testing the latest prototype on her home countertop, she is dialing in on her Ph.D. thesis: How do you — or should you — convince someone in a different part of the world that they should change behaviors that have been part of their culture and their family for generations?
“I think that’s a tricky and sensitive question,” she said. “I think that the answer is often yes, especially when health risks from indoor air pollution are a local concern. But in terms of sustainability, we all need to be making changes.”
Adults have opinions and worldviews that are long-established and difficult to change. So Lindgren is focusing her education and communications efforts on engaging younger generations to achieve sustainable change.
“I’m interested in whether or not kids’ attitudes about sustainability or new cooking technology influence their parents’ decision to try something else,” Lindgren said. “And if so, what role does education play in changing kids’ attitudes so they might affect change at home?”
In 2017, she applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to Namibia to study that effect.
For Lindgren, family dynamics are not only interesting academically, but also an emotional motivator to take on the issue of indoor air pollution from cooking.
“Being a mother made me want to do this research. It’s also the one thing that almost held me back from doing this,” she said. “My two kids are at an age where they are in school, but they are really busy. So my husband and I have seen our lives get busier because the kids are busy.
“On the other hand, it is so easy to be a mom in Champaign-Urbana. I have a good job College of Education, so does my husband, and we are very comfortable. We don’t have to spend a quarter of our income to buy charcoal to prepare a meal for our family. And the kids go to school for free. I don’t have to choose whether to cook dinner or to put my kids in school.”
That inequality between how easy it is for her to be a mother and how not easy it is in other parts in the world got Lindgren interested in solutions that would make life easier for moms and kids around the world.
“It just felt so foreign from my life,” she said. “I felt that someone in my position should do something to learn more about it and be a piece of a solution.”
Going forward, Lindgren is eager for the project to connect with additional communities of fire cookers so she can see another slice of women’s perspectives in the world.
“We get to meet people, get to personally know them, and start to make adjustments based on their feedback,” she said. “How can we make a better engineered solution to meet their needs?”