Advancing the effective use of light for society and the environment.

Vol. 2, No. 1

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Students Serve the Community at Home and Abroad

As lighting professionals, the LRC's lighting students will one day work to improve people's lives through better and more efficient lighting. The current class of second-year students aren't waiting for graduation to begin helping people, though. They've recently been involved in two projects intended to improve the quality of life: one in Bennington, Vermont, and one in Ponce Loma, Ecuador.

The Bennington project was part of the students' Lighting Workshop and Lighting Design courses. Their professors, award-winning designer Janet Moyer and LRC Associate Director Russ Leslie, challenged them to create a lighting plan for the Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot (93-meter) limestone obelisk that stands on a hill overlooking the town of Bennington. The monument commemorates the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bennington in the Revolutionary war, and it attracts close to 50,000 visitors each year. The goal of the project was to devise a lighting plan that would honor the soldiers, boost tourism, and minimize any light pollution. Students would also have to overcome considerable resistance on the part of local residents who feared that lighting the monument would have undesirable social and environmental effects.

Lighting student Lara Jacobson says, "We looked at what had been done at other monuments located in residential districts, such as the one at Bunker Hill near Boston. We studied the history of the Bennington site, including the way it had been lighted for the 150th anniversary of the battle. We also thought about the potential effects of our design on light pollution and local property values. We definitely wanted to maintain the village aesthetic, and we tried to show the residents that they could light the monument without having it be overbearing or ruin the historical nature of the site."

The students came up with a design that would create the effect of a single candle in a window. The top of the monument would have a warm orange glow, while the façade would be lighted using cool white floodlights. Nearby statues of Seth Warner and John Stark, both heroes of the battle, would also be illuminated.

Jacobson says, "People seemed to like the mock-up when we presented it. What's more, the operating cost for this lighting plan is only $700 a year, and that's after an installation cost of $16,000 to $35,000. That's much less expensive than anyone expected it could be."

David Cyr, another student who participated, describes the project as an important learning experience. "Most of the time, with student projects, either it's not a real project--it's just an academic exercise--or it’s one that you already know people will be happy to see completed. In this case, some people wanted the monument lighted and others did not. We had to be mindful of public opinion."

Cyr continues, "It's also useful to go out to a real site and see how what you design will look when it's implemented. At this point in our careers we need to try different things and see how they work. We do a lot of work on paper, and it was nice to do something that was tangible."

The students created a proposal for their lighting design and presented it in person to 150 Bennington residents, while many others watched from their homes on the local public access television station. Jacobson says, "People on all sides of the issue liked our presentation and thought we were very thorough." Cyr concurs: "We didn't win everyone over, but people seemed to appreciate our presentation regardless of which side of the issue they were on."

It remains to be seen whether the students' design will be implemented. Earlier this year Bennington voters approved a non-binding referendum supporting the lighting of the monument, but an existing ordinance prohibits outdoor lighting in the town. However the issue is resolved, the LRC students had a chance to do a real project for real clients, and in the process they contributed to the ongoing debate in the community.

A recent field trip to Ecuador provided another opportunity to contribute to a community, this one the village of Ponce Loma. (For more on the field trip, click here.) Jacobson led an effort to collect donations for the children of this rain forest village with her "Ecuador Holiday Gift Collection."

Ponce Loma is a village of 30 families. The residents do not have electricity and are an entirely sustainable community, but there are some things that would improve their lives. After visiting the village, the students decided to collect useful items such as school supplies and children's clothing. It wouldn’t be the holidays without some frivolity, though, so the call also went out for candy and small toys. Russ Leslie, associate director of the LRC, suggested including some LED flashlights and extra batteries in the donation so that the residents could read at night.

"Ponce Loma is a community that's in harmony with its environment," says Jacobson, "so we wanted to avoid giving items that would create a problem with trash. We also wanted to avoid very heavy items. After all, someone will have to carry this package for more than an hour, uphill, through the rain forest to deliver it!"

The students collected nearly $300 in monetary donations, along with a box full or school supplies and clothing. They used the cash to buy additional school supplies, candy, and the LED flashlights and batteries. Jacobson says, "When we were in Ponce Loma, the school master asked us to remember them at Christmas. I'm happy to say that we have. We had such a good experience there that I really hope we've given something back that they will find as useful and enjoyable as our visit was for us."

About the LRC

The Lighting Research Center (LRC) is part of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is the leading university-based research center devoted to lighting. Founded in 1988, the Lighting Research Center has built an international reputation as a trusted and reliable source for objective information about lighting technologies, applications, and products. Its mission is to advance the effective use of light and create a positive legacy of change for society and the environment

© 2003 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180 USA.

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