By Constance E. Walker

Poor quality lighting not only impedes astronomy research and our right to see a starry night sky, but creates safety issues, affects human circadian sensitivities, disrupts ecosystems, and wastes billions of dollars/year in energy consumption. It also leads to excess carbon emissions. How do you change the mindset of society that is used to turning night into day?  You educate the next generation on quality lighting. 

The United Nations-sanctioned International Year of Light in 2015 (IYL2015) provided an opportunity to increase public awareness of dark skies preservation, quality lighting, and energy conservation. The Education and Public Outreach (EPO) group at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) received a grant through the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the Optical Society of America (OSA) Foundation to produce official “Quality Lighting Teaching Kits” (QLT Kits) for the IYL2015 cornerstone theme, “Cosmic Light”. The QLT kit (Figure 1) allows students to do creative problem solving using quality lighting. 

1. QLT kit 2Figure 1. The Quality Lighting Teaching Kit

The concepts and practices of quality lighting are explored through problem-based learning, hands-on/minds-on activities, as well as formative assessment probes. The six activities use quality lighting to solve realistic cases on how light pollution affects wildlife, the night sky, our eyes, energy consumption, safety, and light trespass into buildings. The impact of the kits is amplified by providing professional development using a tutorial video created at NOAO and conducting question and answer sessions via Google+ Hangouts for program instructors. The Quality Lighting Teaching Kit program leverages NOAO EPO’s work over the last ten years in lighting and optics education (e.g., “Hands on Optics”, the International Year of Astronomy’s “Dark Skies Rangers”, the IAU “Dark Skies Africa”, and Arizona Public Services’ “Dark Skies Yuma” programs). 

The premise of the activities is that the instructor is the mayor of a fictitious city in which the students live (inspired by the City of the Future Poster). The mayor has been receiving complaints from citizens of the city, which all have to do with the lights in the city (stated on the Issues Poster). The students have been assembled into 6 different task forces, to determine the underlying problems expressed in each of the 6 complaint categories, as well as to come up with feasible solutions to those problems. 

The students start by reading the information presented in their group’s poster. The “Now Try This!” section gives instructions for an experiment, game, or activity to complete in order to gain more understanding of the problems with which they are presented. They use the materials in their box and/or envelope to complete the activity.  Using what they know along with help from the Problem Solving Poster, the students brainstorm solutions to their problem. The students then carefully consider the implications (both positive and negative) of their solutions as well as any exceptions where their solutions may not work. They determine if there is any other information they need to better understand the problem or have better solutions. This may involve using the links provided or key ideas from the poster to research more about their problem. 


Energy Poster and Activity

In this activity, students are given an aerial nighttime view of Houston, Texas, USA with a grid superimposed on top. There are three different colors of lights shown in the image: white (along the highways), yellow (the blobs on the right side are oil refineries), and brown (everywhere else). The students count the number of squares of each colored light to determine how much energy, cost, and carbon footprint this city uses and wastes each night. These values accurately reflect the actual energy usage of Houston as well as the type of lights currently used.  If time allows, they will use the Types of Lights handout to determine a more energy efficient scenario by changing the types and/or wattages of the lights or by implementing timers or motion sensors to limit the amount of time the lights are on. The energy, cost and carbon footprint saved can be determined from the difference between the before and after scenarios. All of these calculations can be done on the double-sided Energy Calculation Mat, which can be written on using the wet erase markers or with the accompanying handouts.


Safety Poster and Activity

It is a common misconception that more light is safer; however, this is not always true. While light is needed to see and be safe at night, poorly designed or placed lights can actually be less safe! Poorly shielded or glaring lights provide areas for criminals to hide; criminals also exploit the false sense of security people feel in overly lit areas. In this activity, students will use a lux meter to measure light levels of different scenarios and compare their results to standardized lighting levels. They determine what minimum light levels are needed for a variety of environments to still be safe while conserving energy, cost and carbon footprint.


Animals Poster and Activity

NOAO EPO staff designed a game for students to explore how light pollution affects animals, specifically birds. In the game they are Kirtland’s Warblers, which migrate from the Bahamas to the Great Lakes region of the United States and back again. Along the way, they fly through many major cities. Each year, up to 1 billion birds are killed by crashing into buildings in North America alone. Lit buildings at night cause many of these deaths and injuries. Birds and other animals use the sun or stars to navigate, and the lights can confuse the animals causing them to circle the building and collapse from exhaustion. These issues are explored in the game.  A great “Going Further” idea is to have students research and design a game centered on where they live and on an animal that is threatened by light pollution. 


Glare Poster and Activity 

As one of the three main types of light pollution, glare is caused by an exposed bright light bulb. An overly bright bulb can severely impair vision, especially while driving at night. Glare is worse for older adults due to the presence of cataracts and loss of pupil control.  In this activity, the students will explore glare from a “headlight” (a capless Mini-Maglite) at night (in a darkened room). With an unshielded light source, students will see how glare affects their ability to read an eye chart 6 meters or 20 feet away.  Layers of inkjet transparencies are used to simulate varying degrees of cataracts. The students then come up with and test a solution to redress the problem. 


Night Sky Poster and Activity

As a second major type of light pollution, sky glow is caused by unshielded lights from a city shining up into the sky. This light scatters off of dust, water, smog, clouds, and other things in the atmosphere creating a light dome or glow over the city. Sky glow washes out the stars from view; as a result, most people in cities have never seen a dark night sky. The dark night sky has inspired the arts, literature, philosophy, and many other areas of our cultural heritage. 

In this activity, the students use a star projector to determine how different kinds of lights and shields affect the number of stars that can seen. The students try different lights and shields as described in the “Now Try This!” section of their poster to see the effects on the night sky and come up with possible solutions to mitigate the effect of light pollution and test them.


Light Trespass Poster and Activity

The third type of light pollution is light trespass, where light goes where it is not needed, wanted, or intended. The most common example of light trespass is a streetlight shining into a window at night. This can make sleeping (even with curtains or blinds) difficult. The light is not shining where it is supposed to and is trespassing on other property. Light at night, in particular, can have health effects on humans. Blue light (which is common in most LEDs) is especially bad because blue light at night inhibits the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone, which is only replenished when asleep in the dark. Other sources of blue light such as computer, tablet, and cell phone screens before bed also inhibit melatonin production. 

In this activity, the students have a 40:1 scale model of a street, complete with a house, a person, a streetlight with a slight drop-down Cobra lens (the book light) and a globe light (Mini-Maglight with the ping pong ball).  The students try to recreate the problems voiced in the complaints poster and experiment with the position and angle of the light. They then come up with solutions to keep the light task-oriented (e.g., find ways to shine the light where needed) and mitigate light trespass (e.g., find ways not to shine light where it’s not needed). 


Capstone Presentations

A key component of problem-based learning is presenting methods and findings to an audience. After the students have completed their research and activities they present this information to the mayor of the city and other task groups. Presentations can take many forms, such as oral (e.g. Powerpoint) presentations, posters, videos, skits, songs, brochures, or pamphlets. After all groups have presented, the instructor leads a discussion in which the groups meld their ideas together.  After the presentations and discussion have concluded, the post-assessment is given, mainly to assess student understanding and growth during the project. 


Project Partners

NOAO’s partners are International Commission on Illumination (CIE), the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), the Optical Society (OSA) Foundation and the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), with sponsorship from IAU and the OSA Foundation.  This is the first time that all six stakeholders have partnered in educating the public on the importance of quality lighting and its effects on society. Most of the partners (OSA, IAU OAD, SPIE and IDA) have disseminated the kits to audiences worldwide. 


Kit Distribution

Presently there are 24 countries to which 70 kits have gone out on behalf of OSA (30), SPIE (20), IDA (10) and IAU OAD (10). CIE has decided which 5 of 10 of their national committees are getting the QLT Kits. Once those have been sent, that will make 80 kits distributed on behalf of the partnerships. NOAO has 20 kits being distributed to its observatory outreach program in Chile, for local lending to teachers in Arizona and to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) in the USA.  NOAO is co-hosting the ASP Project ASTRO’s Site Leader Meeting in May at which site leaders will be trained on how to use the kit in an effort to develop a sustainable program in the USA.

The 24 countries are Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Latvia, Nigeria, Portugal, Russia, Russian Federation of Tartarstan, Singapore, Tanzania, Thailand, USA and Zambia. The countries were chosen on the basis of need, interest, dedication and commitment of the recipient or receiving organization.


Website, Tutorial Videos, Translations and Google+ Hangouts

All of the printed materials used in the QLT kit can be found on the program website: To allow instructors to become familiar with the activities in the kit, six tutorial videos have been created and placed on the NOAO EPO YouTube channel. Once the videos are viewed, our next steps include holding Google+ hangouts to answer questions about the activities and program. Since OSA student chapters are in the USA, dedicated Google+ hangouts will be designed for the USA. The videos resulting from the Google+ hangouts will also go on the NOAO EPO YouTube channel. As an extension of the QLT Kit program, we have begun translating the six activities into Spanish, starting with the “Light Pollution and Safety” activity. 


Creating a Legacy 

The funding from OSA Foundation, IAU and NOAO made building the Quality Lighting Teaching Kit possible. It is the fourth program developed by NOAO Education and Public Outreach to address issues on and solutions to light pollution. We consider it the penultimate kit in this area. From the responses to the vast testing of the kit in 2015 and those received from recipients using the kit thus far, the kit has been wildly successful in its popularity and effectiveness and has been applicable to a wide variety of audiences and ages. The program is becoming a legacy of IYL2015. To continue to make that possible, our next steps would be to build another 100 kits, continue to translate the kit’s documents into Spanish (at least) and tweak aspects of its activities to locations the kits will be sent.  The key to accomplishing these goals is to secure the funding.  Should anyone be interested in joining our efforts, please feel free to contact Connie Walker at [email protected]. Like the changes in cultural perceptions and actions on smoking and littering, we can bring more awareness on how quality lighting locally can redress light pollution issues globally. Many hands can make light work.





1. ConnieConnie Walker is an Associate Scientist at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona, USA. For the past 14 years at NOAO, she has enjoyed managing several education outreach programs for the public, students and teachers on hands-on general astronomy, dark skies preservation, optics and solar research. A highlight of her job is directing the popular international light pollution citizen-science campaign, Globe at Night ( To help make a difference, she is president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, VP of the International Astronomical Union’s commission on light pollution, on the board of directors of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), and oversees the Dark Skies Awareness programs for Global Astronomy Month. For her efforts in bringing dark skies awareness to the public, the IDA awarded her their Hoag-Robinson award. Her amazing astronomer-husband, daughter (20), son (16) and cat (8) thankfully tolerate her interest in the dark side of astronomy.