International Light Day at UCL

A few months ago, Muki received an e-mail from the astrophysicist and writer Lucie Green. She, along with UCL’s Astrophysics department, Nature Communications and others, were planning an event for International Light Day, and wondered if UCL ExCiteS could participate by showcasing some citizen science.

The event was aimed at schoolchildren, aged 11-13, as older ones would be busy with exams. It was planned to show science and technology related to light (and indeed the entire electromagnetic spectrum!), which would be interesting for their science education and their future possible STEM careers. Several schools were invited.

I was asked to take this on as an additional DITOs event, and it was especially welcome to me for two main reasons: firstly because I used to work in schools, mostly as a teaching assistant; secondly because of my many years of citizen science in astronomy. (I’ve already got a habit of chatting with members of the astronomy department about their citizen science projects and sneaking up to watch their lunchtime lectures, one of which was by Dr William Dunn on the subject of using X-rays to study the Solar System – and it turned out that William was heavily involved in International Light Day. This is one of my favourite things about working at a university: there are endless interesting people to meet and things to find out.)

The day was planned as a series of demonstrations, with some time for three short talks and a relatively free lunch time. Pupils could move in groups between tables, most of which were run by UCL scientists, showcasing such marvellous entities as ultraviolet light fluorescing in rocks, or lasers, or items “disappearing” into fluids with the same refractive index, or the Mars rover’s PanCam, or the Twinkle mission.

International Light Day poster by Will Dunn
The poster created for UCL’s International Day of Light, shared by William on Twitter


Alice Poster 2 Sunscreen and Citizen Science
My poster about DIY sunscreen and what citizen science is

For the citizen science table we first considered some DIY science from the DITOs science bus, particularly making and testing your own sunscreen. However, as the day would involve 200 people moving at speed over smart carpeted areas, regularly changing places, this would be impractical and probably unsafe (a small number of people are allergic to one of the ingredients used, zinc oxide). Nevertheless, I printed 200 of these leaflets so pupils and teachers could take them and perhaps use them in future chemistry lessons or even at home.

I also decided to showcase Globe at Night, which we’d used for Into the Night last year. Therefore, I’d be able to chat with pupils not just about light but about the importance of its regular absence. (This is a subject close to my heart right now, because recently a large number of extremely bright streetlights have been erected near the flat where I live which shine very strongly into my bedroom window!) Globe at Night has many  resources and even whole lessons available for schools. I had no way to showcase a dark or bright sky, but I made a mini form that children could look at to see what they’d be asked.

Alice Poster 1 Globe at Night
My poster about Globe at Night and artificial light.

My table was therefore mostly for conversation and group discussion, therefore, rather than fascinating equipment or experiments. However, the pupils and teachers seemed very interested and keen to participate. I was able to introduce them to stories such as that the glow worm will have problems finding a mate in a light polluted area, and concepts such as doing science not in order to pass an exam but to probe and perhaps improve the environment around you. (Working in schools showed me that, sadly, the pressure to pass examinations is so great that some pupils feel that the real-life implications of what they are told to memorise are irrelevant and an unnecessary burden.)

However, my favourite activity in working in schools was creating resources, and therefore, along with Nina Meinzer from Nature Communications, I wrote an autoscrolling presentation about light to play over lunch time. It contains not only physics, but also light in literature, art and history. It’s aimed at people only just starting to learn this, so if you’re a physicist, it may not be to your taste! Lucie told me after the day that some of the teachers requested copies for their schools, so I have made a public copy on Slideshare.

(The opening quote, “You don’t see light until it shines on something”, was an epiphany for me as a small child watching The Clangers and I have looked out for this effect ever since, such as watching an aeroplane flying through a cloud at night.)

There were some brilliant talks with demonstrations of fluorescing tonic water, the story of how early humans would have used fire and natural light and the fact that cuttlefish regularly change patterns and for so far unknown reasons become a “checkerboard” pattern when they catch some prey!

We had to be careful about photographs obviously; while we love to record and evaluate events we run, young people and their families don’t always want to be in such photographs. Nevertheless, some schools explicitly gave permission, so here is a sample from William, MSSL and Dr Jess Wade, a scientist and outreach expert who regularly writes Wikipedia articles about women scientists:

It seems that the schools had a good time, and hopefully some of the young people will be tracking excessive artificial light on their smartphones in the coming evenings. Thank you very much to DITOs for always being ready to expand your events lists so that I could take part in this day.

(I met several more scientists I admired that day – if you’d like a mention or to show something you did for International Light Day, please let me know!)

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