SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Students measure brightness of the nighttime sky

Nov. 15, 2007
Dark Skies program provides students in Connecticut with meters to collect data that will be used in 2008 Globe at Night, an initiative to measure light pollution worldwide.


Students in northeast Connecticut are learning about astronomy, optics, and the effects of light pollution by studying the night skies in their own neighborhoods. Through "Investigating the Night Time Sky! (Dark Skies @ EASTCONN)," an innovative new program sponsored by EASTCONN, a nonprofit regional education service center serving 36 school districts in mostly rural areas of the state, participating students, teachers, and schools are gaining a better understanding of the human impact on the outside environment.

Using handheld devices called "sky quality meters" provided by EASTCONN, students at data collection sites throughout the EASTCONN serving area and at outreach locations in Alaska, Wales, and Romania measure the brightness of the night sky in magnitudes per square arcsecond. The students' data will be compiled and sent to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and included in a local database maintained by students and a national database for further study.

Light pollution, caused primarily by poorly designed outdoor artificial lighting and urban sprawl, is making it increasingly difficult to see the nighttime skies. The consequences of the increasing nighttime glare include not only energy waste, harm to human health, harm to nocturnal wildlife and ecosystems, and reduced safety, security and nighttime visibility but also a lack of connection to the history and lore surrounding the stars and planets as we lose our ability to see them.

Through the data collection project, students will be introduced to the issues surrounding light pollution. An online course is being developed to allow students to share results and participate in interactive activities designed to enhance their study of the nighttime sky. Schools in the project will also be invited to participate in the international 2008 Globe at Night initiative, during which data-gatherers around the world will observe and record the magnitude of visible stars in and around the constellation Orion as a means of measuring light pollution in a given location. The observations will help scientists to measure light pollution worldwide.

"The Dark Skies program is designed to reach students in the elementary grades through college," says Nancy Magnani, a member of the EASTCONN Science Cadre who serves as co-site coordinator of the program. "Our goals are to create an interest in science at an early age, to enhance both teacher and student knowledge and interest in light, vision, color, and optics, and to focus attention on the upcoming 2009 International Year of Astronomy."

Magnani explained that the program fills a void in current science education curricula. "Through surveys of teachers attending professional development workshops, we established that the needs of teachers for high quality optics and vision curriculum and new materials to teach night time sky activities were not being addressed," she said. "Teachers are anxious for new ideas, knowledge, and teaching materials. This program will provide the resources they need to deliver high-quality inquiry-based science education to classrooms."

Dark Skies @ EASTCONN is one component of a larger EASTCONN project entitled "Enhancing the K-12 Science Curriculum: Embedding the Study of Light, Color and the Night Time Sky." The other elements of the program are:

Optics in the Classroom. Teachers attend professional development workshops to learn how to bring optics education and the study of light, color, and optics technology to students using hands-on learning. The program targets fifth-grade teachers but is open to teachers at all grade levels.

Lending Library. A lending library makes optics kits and resources available to EASTCONN districts. The centerpiece of the library is a series of "Hands-on Optics" (HOO) modules designed by the Optical Society of America (OSA), the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) and NOAO. Each HOO module addresses a different topic and offers six to seven hours of exploratory science activities that can be grouped into 30 to 90 minute sessions. Teachers' guides, clearly presented lessons, and all materials for each lesson are included in the kits.

Scholarships. Scholarships provide opportunities for teachers and districts that do not have money in their budgets to send teachers to content-specific workshops or participate in outreach programs.

Telescope kit. Each student in an enrolled-teacher's class will make a telescope to take home. Supplies and instructions (a Terrific Telescope kit) are provided by the program.

The program is an initiative of the EASTCONN Science Cadre, which was formed last year to help teachers better prepare students in grades K-12 to excel in the sciences. The Dark Skies @ EASTCONN project is a collaborative effort between EASTCONN and the Laser and Fiber Optic Technology program at Three Rivers Community College. It is funded by a grant from the OSA Foundation (OSAF) and with support from the College of Technology Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing (COT RCNGM), and technical support from NOAO and the New England Board of Higher Education (NEHBE).

Grace Klonoski is the Senior Director of OSA Foundation and Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail: [email protected];

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