The W. M. Keck Foundation has awarded $250,000 to the University of Utah to establish a new undergraduate minor in dark sky studies, the first of its kind in the United States. Dark sky studies is an emerging field that explores the impacts of artificial light at night and the loss of our night skies through a broad range of disciplines. Housed in the College of Architecture + Planning, the minor is open to all students across the university who will explore issues through the lens of science, including in public health, urban planning, engineering and the humanities, from religion to history and philosophy.
“Exploring ways to bring faculty together from across the campus and create inspiring, transdisciplinary courses finally came together with the W. M. Keck Foundation’s invitation for proposals,” said Stephen Goldsmith, associate professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and principal investigator for the project. “Their award paves the way for the creation of new knowledge and invites creative responses to the challenges that surround the disappearing dark.”
Students will also participate in field-based research, including developing new technology to measure light pollution. In subsequent courses, students will use the new device to collect, map and analyze data within communities along the Colorado Plateau interested in improving their night skies. The students will identify lighting hot spots and implement creative solutions, such as designing and installing cost-effective fixtures that address community issues.
The minor is the substantive next step for the U-based Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS), the first research center in the world focused on the interdisciplinary connections of artificial light and dark skies. The minor further illuminates the consortium’s role as an international leader in the field.
“Dark sky studies is a truly interdisciplinary field engaging disciplines ranging from the humanities, urban planning, and tourism to STEM and health,” said Daniel Mendoza, one of the minor’s core faculty members, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the Division of Pulmonary Medicine. “The University of Utah has been leading the way since the inception of the CDSS and, with the generosity of the Keck Foundation, we are establishing the groundwork for continued educational and research opportunities.”
A minor with major reach across campus
The minor in dark sky studies seeks to expand a new pedagogical model for transdisciplinary undergraduate studies. The minor’s core faculty reflect this philosophy: They are Mendoza; Goldsmith, co-director of the CDSS, who coordinates the urban ecology program in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning; David B. Kieda, co-director of the CDSS, dean of the Graduate School, and professor of the Department of Physics & Astronomy; Kelly S. Bricker, professor, chair, and director of parks, recreation and tourism in the College of Health; and Cord Bowen, director of the U’s multidisciplinary design program in the College of Architecture + Planning.
Ten more faculty members from all corners of campus will collaborate to develop syllabi and refine courses that break down the traditional silos between the different departments. These course instructors will become a new cohort of scholars in dark sky studies, providing them with a platform for collaborating with peers from other institutions.
“The minor in dark sky studies provides students across campus with the opportunity to engage in highly relevant inquiry regarding a universally inspiring natural, cultural and economic resource that is clearly disappearing due to human habitat,” said Keith Diaz Moore, dean of the College of Architecture + Planning.
The minor will require 21 hours of coursework, including nine credit hours in three new interdisciplinary core courses tentatively named Public Health and Artificial Light; Arts, Humanities and the Night Skies; and Astronomy and Culture. Students will also take four electives from departments across the U campus to explore a particular aspect of dark sky studies.
Undergraduate research experience
The minor offers undergraduates research opportunities; the first is inventing a new tool for understanding the impact of artificial light at night in areas affected by skyglow. Skyglow is a phenomenon in which artificial light scatters into the atmosphere and creates a diffuse glow that is visible across long distances.
Professors Kam Leang of mechanical engineering, Marc Bodson of electrical and computer engineering, and Tucker Hermans of the School of Computing will mentor undergraduate students from the College of Engineering to design and develop drone technology, called a “Sky Drone,” that will be capable of carrying instruments that measure light levels and temperatures, and will export data into geographical information systems maps.
The Sky Drone will be the first of its kind—existing tools require an individual to record measurements by hand while traveling on foot, often taking weeks to survey an area. In contrast, the Sky Drone will rapidly and remotely measure and map artificial light sources over a large geographic space, saving substantial money and time. After its development, all students in the dark sky minor will utilize the Sky Drone to research the impact of skyglow in communities throughout the Colorado Plateau. Additionally, the technology could be patentable and become a vital tool for the increasing number of communities looking to improve their night skies and boost astro-tourism in their areas.
The program will use funds from the Keck Foundation to pay lecturers in dark sky studies, create new lighting survey equipment, purchase portable telescopes and provide student travel to regional field stations. Additional funds from the U will cover the cost of instructors and provide teaching and research assistantships for the new classes, student internships, access to field stations and observatories and a meeting space for the CDSS. The U.S. National Park Service is funding a coordinator dedicated to dark sky research and community development within the Colorado Plateau.
“The dark skies minor will prepare students for the modern world by engaging them in truly integrated thinking and experience that locates their learning in the context of complex systems—an example of the best in undergraduate education at the University of Utah,” said Martha S. Bradley, senior associate vice president of undergraduate studies.