Light Classrooms for Modern Education Delivery

Conventional classroom lighting is no longer sufficient in today’s dynamic, electronics-based education environment.

Karen Lee, OSRAM Sylvania

Karen Lee, OSRAM SYLVANIA

There is no doubt that the way education is delivered has transformed significantly from the image of the classic classroom with students sitting obediently in rows at their desks facing the teacher and blackboard in the front of the room. Some changes are driven by necessity, such as overcrowding or limited access to schools. Some are driven by studies of how different people best absorb information. Certainly evolution in technology, such as electronic devices and connectivity, and development of creative teaching methods also encourage us to reconsider the design of educational facilities to accommodate these new needs.

At Lightfair International 2014, Robert Davis and Andrea Wilkerson from Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL), Richland, WA, presented a very thought-provoking outlook that highlighted some lighting challenges based on the trends in education today. According to The Center for Green Schools, Washington, approximately 25% of Americans go to school or college every day as students, teachers, staff, faculty, or administrators. While the opportunity for saving energy is certainly tremendous, more compelling is the opportunity to design lighting systems to achieve better learning. We can, and should, specify the most energy-efficient lighting systems that are suitable for the respective applications in education facilities. We should also be using daylight-harvesting schemes and occupancy sensors to ensure that we are providing supplemental electric light only when Mother Nature needs help and when there are actually occupants in those spaces to benefit from that illumination.

Technology, flexibility, and a better understanding of how students learn are changing the way we light classrooms.

Technology, flexibility, and a better understanding of how students learn are changing the way we light classrooms.

The more intriguing challenge, however, is how to design a lighting system that can actually facilitate the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in these facilities. This can best be done by understanding the research and trends in this area, and continuing to investigate the connection between the environment and how we process information. What stands out as a dominant need is the opportunity for more flexible lighting schemes, not only in terms of the lighting schedule but lighting-system configuration.

A study published in the Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Societyin 2002, by Heschong et. al., demonstrated that daylighting in classrooms yields higher performance on standardized tests for elementary school students. While the mechanism is not well understood, there were three possibilities suggested: increased visibility, enhanced mood, and improved health. Subsequent studies by numerous parties have shown that biologically optimized lighting that enhances circadian entrainment can improve attentiveness and cognitive performance in the classroom, and also yield higher scores on standardized tests. Whether because sleep patterns were improved or lighting patterns simulated natural daylight, the end results were positive. The design of circadian lighting schemes is a hot industry topic and was discussed in a previous blog post, so let’s look at opportunities for dynamic lighting of a different ilk.

When considering the flexibility of lighting systems, this may be viewed from several different perspectives:

  • Visibility. We are used to designing lighting systems to provide a certain illuminance for a given task. But what and where is that task in today’s classroom? In a conventional lecture-style seating arrangement, the teacher may be writing on a blackboard or whiteboard, or may be speaking to slides shown on a front or rear-projection display or LCD monitor. Each of these presents different glare and contrast challenges. Some need direct illumination of the information, while others must avoid that for best visibility. The student, too, may be taking notes on paper or, more likely, on an electronic tablet or laptop. There also is an increasing trend toward project-based activities that are more interactive and engaging, which requires a lighting scheme that allows better viewing for all members of the class or discussion group.
  • Occupant age. With changing career paths becoming more commonplace, many educational facilities teach children during the day, but adults in continuing education programs in the evenings, so required illuminance levels may vary greatly. No longer should it be assumed that the oldest occupants will be the educator.
  • Reconfigurable spaces. As education delivery continues to experiment and take on different forms, we see furniture manufacturers and audio/visual equipment providers respond by making modifications to accommodate the flexible teaching styles. A great deal of furniture is designed with wheels, so classrooms may be easily and quickly reconfigured from lecture style to small-group discussions or project activities. Monitors and workstations are portable and wireless connectivity allows for tremendous mobility. Lighting systems are typically more rigid, but the equipment certainly exists to enable greater flexibility to meet the changing needs of today’s classroom. By layering different types of luminaires, we can provide appropriate accent lighting for lecture-style teaching, but more diffuse ambient light for discussion activities or heavy computer work. Control schemes can also be programmed with greater granularity, so that multiple scenes may be created for different teaching configurations.
  • Curriculum and programming changes. As population demographics and teaching philosophies change, the demand for physical design of educational facilities will also change. The flipped classroom concept advocates the viewing of lectures on-line as pre-work, so that classroom time is used for discussion and homework. This will likely reduce the need for larger auditoria in favor of smaller, interactive classroom configurations. Project-based learning and gamification (use of game-playing techniques to teach) of teaching may change how classrooms are structured and partitioned. Some facilities now use moveable-wall construction to enable future reconfiguration of their classrooms. The use of DC power microgrids, such as advocated by the EMerge Alliance, San Ramone, CA, would allow for flexible repositioning of luminaires and other equipment without having to invest in costly rewiring.
  • Special accommodations. As we learn more about how different sub-segments of the population learn best, we will continue to find beneficial ways to alter the physical environment to better serve them. Research of neurological and neurobehavioral disorders, such as autism and ADHD, has shown that modifications of the built environment can improve the ability of these populations to focus and therefore learn better. While classrooms are typically designed to offer inquisitive children ample stimuli to encourage exploration and learning, this may be overly distracting and over-stimulating for those with neurological disorders. Perhaps, however, we can also use lighting to help focus these students and create a calm, more neutral environment that better supports their learning needs.

As lighting technology advances, we are fortunate to have more instruments in our toolbox that allow us to approach lighting design differently. Solid-state lighting has given us a new form factor that allows the smooth integration of light sources in places that conventional light bulbs and light fixtures simply couldn’t fit. The relative ease of control of these sources multiplies the options for how light is applied in a space. It is quite simple to engineer light levels, color quality, spectral characteristics, optical effects, photometric distribution, and schedule of use. Together, all of these create a very dynamic canvas on which a new picture of education delivery may be painted. As educators grow their understanding of how best to apply their craft, let us hope that those of us charged with creating the built environment join them on this learning adventure for future discovery.

Author
Karen Lee is the head of applications marketing for OSRAM SYLVANIA and has been in the lighting industry for more than 20 years. With an engineering background, she has held roles in R&D, product development, product management, business development, education, and marketing for all light source technologies in general and specialty lighting applications. Karen is Lighting Certified by the National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professions (NCQLP), is a LEED Accredited Professional, and is a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA).

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