It's Time to Rethink Classroom Light Designs

Jan 13, 2018

At the end of my sophomore year in high school, it was time to take the AP U.S. History Exam. Everyone in my class was told to arrive early in the morning in order to get on a bus to be taken to the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham where the test would be given. When we got there, the teachers split us up alphabetically and put us in different classrooms. The room I was in had no windows. If it weren’t for the tables in the shape of a horseshoe, a desk at the front of the room, and the chalkboard on the wall, I could have sworn it was a jail cell. Okay, maybe not a jail cell with the amount of artificial lighting, but since we were there for a test it wasn’t far off from an interrogation room.

When the test was over, the light outside was an exquisite sight. Being in that room for a few hours straight made me think I might never see the sun again. I was pleased to find that I was not going to be trapped forever in a room with incredibly harsh lighting.

My high school also uses those cool-white fluorescent bulbs. I understand that there are schools around the world that do not have access to electricity, and that this is considered a first-world problem. 

However, these blinding fluorescent lights are not only excessive and bad for the environment, but also cause anxiety, attention problems, and have the potential to significantly lower student performance. A solution to this problem is incorporating more natural lighting in schools.

After the energy crisis of 1973, schools replaced their large windows with fluorescent lights and mechanical ventilation. With no windows and no natural ventilation, suddenly schools looked like shopping malls. This also caused students to become more distracted in classrooms, according to a 2014 report.

Not only do fluorescent lights cause low student performances but they also have financial and environmental costs. Financially speaking it costs an average of  $3,110 per year just to light one gymnasium, according to energy blogger Dave VanTol. That’s not even including classrooms, hallways, offices, or the rest of the lighting in one school. Now think about how many schools there are in America with excessive fluorescent lighting. That’s a lot of money to spend on something so unnecessary. Natural sunlight is free and better for the environment.

In 1999 the Heschong Mahone Group composed a study about natural lighting and the results were incredible. The researchers found in rooms with the most natural lighting, the learning rates of students in reading increased by 26 percent and 20 percent in math. The study also found that test scores improved by 25 percent in naturally lit classrooms. Daylighting can eliminate classroom distractions and help students focus, according to the study.

Another study in Turkey tested the correlation of daylighting and social competences and cognitive skills in preschoolers. The results showed a crucial correlation between classroom daylight condition and the children’s social competences and cognitive skills. One study taking place between 1987 and 1991 showed that students who studied in artificially lit classrooms had lower rates of academic achievement, higher absenteeism levels, and even had more tooth decay. Students who studied in rooms with daylighting seemed to have health increases; For instance, they had healthier teeth, their height and weight gains were linked to sun exposure. There was also a decrease in absenteeism due to common illness, University of Nebraska researcher Safak Yacan reported.

Certainly, it would be great if all schools were to incorporate more natural lighting; However, there are some small drawbacks.

For instance, some schools have night programs for students who wish to take classes at night, not to mention evening open houses and parent nights. If schools were to rely only on daylight for school lighting, these evening events may not have enough light due to the sun going down. That being said, this issue could be solved by only using artificial lighting for these evening events. Then the majority of the lighting during the day would still be natural, and therefore better for the environment and improve student performance.

With all of this information and studies about the positive effects of natural lighting in schools, society and students could really benefit from regulations or a law that enforces daylighting. Ultimately it would set a minimum, if any, amount of windowless classrooms in any new schools being built and potentially those undergoing any major renovations. Even if just a few classrooms switch to daylighting, it would still be more effective than complete reliance on fluorescent bulbs.

Sarah Shields is a student at Gorham High School.