The Official Student Newspaper of Calvin College Since 1907
September 18, 2009
Volume 104, Issue 3
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Science & Technology
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Calvin installs new outdoor lighting
The project, begun in 2008, reduces light pollution for telescope
  Enlarge Photo courtesy
Professors Deb and Loren Haarsma stand by the less light-polluted telescope.
  Enlarge Photos courtesy of
From left to right, the “China hat,” “cobra head” and “shepherd’s crook” light fixtures.

A dark rectangular sign on the glass door of the North Hall main entrance, illuminated by a sodium light and silhouetted against the halls of the Science Building, beckons both Calvin students and the general public to enjoy a night of observing the universe. High above, on the fourth floor of the building, can be seen the pale observatory dome which houses Calvin’s on-site telescope, above the observatory deck where astronomy students measure off the sky’s angles with thumbs and fists at arm’s length.

But the campus is not supposed to be able to “see” the observatory, or the students taking measurements on the deck. Calvin’s observatory is intended to be as shrouded in darkness as possible, to unveil the splendor and science of the starry sky.

Until this past summer, the observatory was bathed in both reflected and direct light all night long. But just recently, Calvin has taken dramatic steps to reduce a large percentage of the direct light pollution, by switching out many of the familiar “China hat” path lights with the new “shepherd’s crook” lights.

The task of replacing these lights began as a project undertaken by students in the spring 2008 upper-level astronomy lab. Together with Professor Deb Haarsma of the Physics/Astronomy department, students Kathy Hoogeboom (08), Jessie Taylor (08), John VanderHeide (08) and Jess Vriesema (09) researched the problem from multiple angles and proposed the current solution — the energy-efficient, pollution-reducing “shepherd’s crook” replacements.

The students contemplated various ways that they could reduce light pollution around the observatory, first considering the task of lessening the general light glare from the surrounding neighborhood (primarily a result of lights from the nearby Woodland Mall). In the end, they made the decision to focus their efforts on the lights closest to home — the path lights surround the Commons and the Science Building.

“There’s a difference between general pollution and sources,” shared Haarsma. For these path lights, “it was easy to make the case that they were directly affecting the observatory.”

Calvin’s Expanded Statement of Mission, as quoted on the astronomy lab’s site (, states: “In this community learning goes well beyond the classroom, making it possible and necessary that all campus life promote the educational tasks.” With this goal in mind, the students approached the Physical Plant, seeking a cost estimate for the replacement of the 23 “China hat” lights that most bothered the observatory.

Electrician Lucas DeVries estimated that the job would cost $60,500. The students then took this number and drafted a proposal for the replacement of the lights. With the support of the faculty of the Physics/Astronomy department they presented the proposal to the college, in a meeting with Provost Claudia Beversluis and Dean of Mathematics and Natural Science Uko Zylstra. Their proposal was eventually accepted, and after a period of waiting for the ground to thaw from the last winter, most of the 23 lights were replaced this summer.

The vision for this project sprung in part from CEAP, the Calvin Environmental Assessment Program. According to the program’s website, CEAP motivates faculty to “dedicate a regular lab session or project to collecting data that contributes to an overall assessment of the environment of the campus and surrounding area.” Thanks to this program, and to the efforts of the Astronomy 384 class, Calvin students visiting the observatory in the first few days of its opening this semester will notice a marked difference in the glare from the ground below.

“The new lights are more energy-efficient, and will actually save Calvin money,” Physical Plant director Phil Beezhold told Chimes. The switch will eventually pay for its own costs of replacement, although Beezhold is unsure of the timeline for recouping the costs.

The “shepherd’s crook” lights were also an improvement on safety around campus. Using photodetectors, the class measured the light output from the “China hat” lights at several different angles, and found that much of the light shines directly into the eyes of pathgoers, hindering their ability to detect dangerous or suspicious activity. The new lights are directed downward, promoting security on campus.

Seeing the success of the class project, Haarsma is also optimistic for future projects, both on campus and in the surrounding area. “The change truly is amazing. We hope the light replacements extend to the rest of campus.”

The Physical Plant is already engaged in multiple efforts around Calvin to promote sustainability and renewable/efficient energy use. In addition to the eventual replacement of all of the “China hat” lights around campus, the Physical Plant is switching out old lightbulbs in dorms and apartments with newer, energy-efficient ones, and installing motion sensors in areas that see less or sporadic activity.

The recent construction of the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex and the ongoing construction of the new Covenant Center to replace the FAC — though not LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified — will also implement improved energy-saving features such as greater insulation, electronic ballasts (which limit the amount of current running through a circuit) and energy-efficient light bulbs.

“We are not striving to be LEED certified with the FAC, but we’re trying to be as energy efficient as possible,” reported Beezhold.

Through these energy-saving methods, Calvin hopes to lead its community and surrounding neighborhood forward, making progress toward sustainable living patterns and a healthier environment.

The students of 2008’s astronomy lab hope that Calvin College — whose observatory is open every Wednesday night to local residents of Grand Rapids — can “indirectly improve the lighting conditions throughout the Grand Rapids by serving as leader and working model of such improvements.” Future projects might reach out into the local neighborhood — particularly areas such as Woodland Mall — and urge businesses to alter or adjust their light fixtures, to darken the night skies.

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