Taylor Cook

Students and faculty in the environmental studies program finished a new addition to the outdoor pavilion located behind the TREE House this fall semester. The TREE House (Teaching, Research, and Environmental Engagement House) is home to Hiram College’s Environmental Studies program, and behind the house now sits a new community area centered around a large cob oven.

Last fall, the environmental studies program offered an interdisciplinary course titled Creating Resilience. Debbie Kasper, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental studies, and Sarah Mabey, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental studies and coordinator of the natural history minor, taught the class. The course focused on the interconnected environmental, energy, equity, and economic crises currently unfolding and why communities should focus on building resilience or a reorganization of systems to enable them to provide for their needs and functions. 

Students in the course expressed particular interest in food systems, so the group began working on a cob oven project that incorporated all Four E’s. The cob oven was low-cost (economic), accessible (equity), eco-friendly (environmental), and fossil-fuel free (energy). Dr. Kasper noted that while building the oven they were, “cultivating skills, empowering students, and building community both through its making and use. Plus, it was really fun!”

With the students in the class as the main laborers for the project, alongside Dr. Kasper and Dr. Mabey, construction began on the cob oven in fall 2019. Kasper described a cob oven as, “a wood fired oven made of cob or a natural building material that’s a mixture of clay, sand, and straw built on some kind of base.”

Funding for this project came from a gift to the environmental studies program. The group was also fortunate enough to receive the help of Chris McClellan, better known as Uncle Mud, with the project. McClellan is a cob expert and travels around the U.S. and the world teaching people how to build cob ovens, houses, and more. This is especially valuable in poorer countries where building materials are unaffordable to most. McClellan worked with the class to get a sense of the vision and help design the placement of the oven and bench, and he even brought all the materials. 

Dr. Kasper recently announced that the oven is officially open for community use, and instructions on how to use it will be posted soon. Traditionally, the way to use a cob oven is by building a fire inside and letting it heat slowly over a few hours. As the fire cools, one uses the varying heat levels to cook, bake, and warm items all in the same sitting.

Dr. Kasper reflected, “These are the kinds of projects that make student experiences really special. It’s a lot of work to pull off, but it’s worth it in the end. Moments spent with hands in the mud, being a part of the ‘cob toss,’ and eating wood-fired pizza from an oven you helped build are some of the moments students will remember most.”

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