Every year the glow from our porches, buildings and streetlights gets brighter while our view of the moon, stars and Milky Way get dimmer. As light pollution reduces the darkness of the night sky, it disrupts animal movements, human biological clocks and other essential processes. It makes our lives and the planet less healthy. Dark sky studies is an interdisciplinary field that explores the extensive impacts of artificial light at night—and the University of Utah is helping develop its future leaders.
The first undergraduate cohort of the dark sky studies minor completed the Dark Sky Studies Capstone course with projects that made an impact in Utah’s communities. When the U launched the minor in 2019, it was the first of its kind in the United States. Housed in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning in the College for Architecture + Planning, undergrads from any major can participate to learn dark sky principles to apply in their chosen careers. The minor includes three core dark sky courses, Lightscapes, Nightscapes, and ending with the Capstone course, along with 9 elective credits in various disciplines. In the Fall 2020 semester, the inaugural cohort partnered with local artists, researchers, educators, and policymakers to advocate for Salt Lake Valley’s dark skies.
“These projects exceeded our expectations—the students were great ambassadors for dark skies in the different areas they were passionate about,” said Daniel Mendoza, visiting assistant professor in Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and co-director of the U-based Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, who led the capstone class.
The students’ projects demonstrate the transdisciplinary nature of understanding and preserving dark skies by incorporating math, physics, outreach, politics, education, social justice, biology, urban planning, creative expression, and cultural anthropology.
Dark skies in the Salt Lake Valley
Light pollution is a global problem, but solutions come at the local level. Here, research is critical to identify where excessive lighting is a problem. Two groups of capstone students aimed to measure and analyze light pollution over two elementary schools in the Salt Lake Valley—Ensign Elementary and Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE)
“We wanted to see if there was a difference between lighting in the east and west sides of Salt Lake City. This is an environmental justice element of light pollution,” said Sophie Bellina, who is pursuing a Master’s of City & Metropolitan Planning and was part of the research team. She’s also worked at the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. “Lighting is not always the first thing residents think of; most associate lighting with safety, which can create a wrong sense of security as brighter lights do not create safer environments.”
Bellina visited SLCSE to create a data collection plan by walking the perimeter of the school and mapping various light fixtures. The idea was to launch autonomous drones built for the minor by mechanical engineering students, advised by professor Kam Leang. These specialized drones are equipped with sensors that measure the brightness of an area, an established method for light pollution research. The licensed drone operators maneuvered the craft according to the plan.
Advocating for dark skies at city councils is key, as they decide what types of lighting will be used in their communities. Two groups of capstone undergraduates were focused on outreach and advocacy. They partnered with the Natural History Museum of Utah’s Youth Teaching Youth (YTY), a program that provides in-depth instructional and mentoring opportunities for middle and high school students in the Glendale neighborhood located in Salt Lake City’s west side. The undergrads presented to all 30 high school participants in the YTY program about the importance of dark skies, which inspired two freshmen and two seniors from East High School to collaborate on co-presenting to the Glendale Community Council to advocate for their own neighborhood.
“Since the Youth Teaching Youth program started in 1994, science and peer-mentoring have always been the focus. The Dark Sky Studies Capstone class fit perfectly into our mission,” said Linda Aaron, youth development programs manager for the museum. “The passion of the college students definitely carried over to the high school students. That’s the passion that they’re going to spread to their communities.”
The undergrads met with the high schoolers for several weeks to teach dark sky principles. Together, they informed the council members about dark skies and presented a proposal for recommendations on implementing dark sky-friendly lighting. “It was a great success,” said Mendoza. “The committee called for a motion for the community to adopt dark sky lighting principles and it will be discussed further at subsequent meetings.”
Capstone students also advocated to the Rose Park Community Council as the neighborhood is trying to improve lighting for safety. “A part of dark sky advocacy is that dark sky friendly lighting and safety are not opposed to one another,” Mendoza said. “The types of focused lighting that point downward instead of up towards the sky, for example, can accomplish both objectives, and in fact enhance safety.” The group will continue to discuss dark sky friendly lighting options with the city council as Salt Lake City is undergoing a street light master plan.
Advocating through art
Creative expression can articulate a message in a way that facts and figures never can. Throughout the course, dark sky scholars and other guests talked about the many facets of the dark skies. All My Relations, a New York-based collective of Indigenous artists who advocate about Native peoples’ representation in the media, led one class after receiving a 1U4U grant. They homed in on Indigenous people’s deep knowledge of the sky as part of their culture from time immemorial.
The students incorporated these concepts, along with other research, to two Salt Lake City-based artists to collaborate on creating a mural. Josh Scheuerman and Jorge Arellano led its design and mentored the students on realizing the concepts as an art piece and painting it along a 30-foot wall of the Salt Lake Center for Science Education cafeteria.
“One of the challenges was that there’s so much information, how do you get that into a visual? Lots of students weren’t visual artists, so our job was to transform that information into a way that made other people feel it was accessible,” said Scheuerman. He focused on representing the natural world and included the Milky Way. “I knew that the cycles of day and night influence migration patterns of animals, bees, birds, but I also learned from the students that it affects humans, it affects our sleep patterns and our mental health.”
Arellano focused on representing that Native people around the world have a deep relationship to the night sky. “I am from Mexico, from Guerrero. Indigenous people there believe in a legend that a rabbit was thrown onto the moon—you can see the shadow that looks like a rabbit. The rabbit legend occurs in other cultures as well, like in Japan and China,” said Arellano. “We wanted to represent how people back then, our ancestors, they looked at the stars, planets, and they use it to line up their buildings and cities.”
The artists, the undergraduates, and others painted the mural in November while taking the necessary COVID-19 precautions. First Scheuerman and Arellano painted the main elements of the mural, and then added stencils to make a paint-by-numbers system that the students would be comfortable with. The participants worked in shifts to limit the amount of people present at one time. Even for the seasoned artists, the collaboration was meaningful.
“I’ve done many incredible pieces over many years but making this with these students was one of the most beautiful I’ve created,” said Arellano.
Scheuerman agreed. “We wanted to make something that we were proud of as artists, but also something that everyone who participated was proud of as well. Now the school has a pretty mural they can be proud of and learn for generations.”