At 100 degrees, the pizza box is still far better equipped to hold a meal than to cook one — but it’s a start.

As part of a semester-long project for his English composition class, Center Grove High School junior Nick LePage constructed a rough solar-powered cooker out of a pizza box, some aluminum foil and plastic wrap.

On his test run, conducted on a 70-degree day, LePage was able to get the inside of the cooker to warm up to 100 degrees — just enough to convince him that he’s on the right track as he prepares to build a larger version out of wood.

“I’ve done a few tests with it,” LePage said. “It’s been a few weeks now; I want to do some more while I’m making the wooden one. But a 30-degree increase, I know it’s working. Something’s going right.”

Story continues below gallery

The cooker experiment is just one portion of LePage’s foray into the world of self-sufficient living — which he says is less about getting a good grade and more about setting himself up to one day live a minimalist lifestyle that has become quite appealing to him.

Camping Tiger, hidden passion

LePage’s interest in no-frills living stemmed from, of all things, his love for baseball.

Two years ago, he read an article about Daniel Norris, then a prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and currently a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Norris, who got a $2 million signing bonus when he was drafted in 2011 and currently makes more than $500,000 per year in the majors, spends large parts of his offseason living out of a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van that he bought for $10,000.

By now, LePage says, he has read Norris’ story “about a thousand times,” and it’s inspiring him to steer his own life in a similar direction.

“He’s a guy I look up to; I’ve met him several times,” LePage said. “So to see him and read that he’s doing this, it makes you think, ‘Well, this isn’t hard to do.’ It doesn’t take a lot of money. … It was inspiring, to say the least.”

Not at all coincidentally, LePage sports a T-shirt with a picture of a Volkswagen van on it. He puts it on every time he’s doing work on his Genius Hour project.

“I feel like it gets me in the mindset,” LePage said.

LePage carried that inspiration into his English composition class, a dual-credit course that also earns him college hours through a partnership the high school has with Vincennes University.

The course, taught by Lesley McDougal, includes a semester-long project known as Genius Hour that requires students to go in-depth and learn about a subject that interests them.

One student, McDougal says, is experimenting with a vegan diet and putting together a cookbook full of vegan recipes for teens. Another is putting together care packages for cancer patients and their siblings through Peyton Manning Chidren’s Hospital. Others are building YouTube channels, including one devoted to fishing.

The idea is to get students to immerse themselves in “passion projects” that will have more impact on their lives than just a grade on a report card. McDougal notes that just last year, three of her students changed their college majors because of their Genius Hour projects.

“It’s not just now,” she said. “It’s impacting them in their future, too, because they’re focusing on what it is they love, and they’re learning so much that they’re channeling that in a different way.”

That’s clearly happening with LePage as well. Though he says he’d probably like to attend Indiana University and pursue a degree in writing or business, he plans to continue researching in hopes of living out the same ideals as Norris.

“This is just one step,” he says of the course. “I’m still just a junior in high school. But yeah, one day I’d really like to live a lifestyle like that and embrace this idea of self-sufficiency.”

Hunting for information

One of the course requirements is that students find mentors to help guide them through their Genius Hour projects.

LePage reached out to Brandon Butler, whose Driftwood Outdoors column appears in the Daily Journal each week. The two have corresponded periodically throughout the last couple of months, particularly about the idea of building a cabin entirely out of repurposed materials, such as old tires.

Though the semester doesn’t offer enough time for someone to take on that large of a construction project, LePage says he had at least hoped to build a smaller model — but he’ll have to be content with gathering information on it that he can use later in life.

“I don’t know if a 16- or 17-year-old can make a repurposed cabin in five months,” McDougal said. “However, they learn about that; they learn about what it takes.

Butler has drawn from his conversations with LePage, too — following up on a piece he wrote for Outdoor Life magazine years ago about building a cabin for less than $2,000, he’s now trying to sell that publication on the idea of documenting him as he follows through on such a project.

The writer has been happy to share his knowledge and experience, particularly with someone so eager to embrace a minimalist lifestyle at such a young age.

“I wish I’d have been more like him when I was his age,” Butler said, “instead of buying a big house right off the bat and struggling to pay for it.”

In it for the long haul

Before the school year comes to an end, LePage will give a presentation on his findings and write a research paper. In addition to showing off at least one cooker, he’s hoping to have some other items of note.

One task that he hopes to complete and capture on video is starting a fire using nothing but a plastic bag and water.

“I just like learning in general,” LePage said, “so even if I never have to use that in real life, (trying) it was an experience that was worthwhile.”

That sort of trial and error is what the project is about for LePage — finding out what works so that he can incorporate some or all of it into his lifestyle as he grows older.

He’s never hunted and only fished a handful of times, but he’s developing more of an interest in both. He knows he’ll probably never abandon his cell phone or live without electricity entirely, he is intrigued by the idea of being able to fully power his own home using sun or wind.

Throughout his college years, LePage plans to continue doing research while also figuring out what career path he’ll pursue. Part of the trick, he says, will be making sure that his career is compatible with his lifestyle plans.

“I want to have a job I enjoy,” LePage said, “but I don’t want to just do something over and over. I want to get out there, explore and live life to its fullest while I can.”

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2715.