Learning in the Dark: The Year of Light and Informal STEM Project Highlights

20150112 dark 594x240

January 11th, 2015

The UN designated 2015 The International Year of Light. In an earlier Perspectives, The Year of Light and Informal Science Education, we focused on a few light-related resources from our collection. From astronomy, to bats, to citizen science, we highlight here a few STEM projects that originate in the dark.

“Pre-opening visitors have compared the experience to being born again, turning yourself inside out head first, being swallowed by a whale, and inevitably, being enfolded in a giant womb.” Out of context, that quote may lead you to draw some interesting conclusions. But it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s an excerpt from the Exploratorium’s Press Release for the Tactile Dome, which opened in 1971, and was billed as “the tactile equivalent of a light show”. Visitors crawl, slide, and bump their way through the pitch-dark dome using only their sense of touch as a guide through its chambers and mazes. The Tactile Dome demonstrates how an exhibit designed 40 years ago maintains lasting power and relevance.

Not all bats are entirely nocturnal or navigate by echolocation, but they all hold the distinction of being the only mammal that can truly fly. Drawing from a diversity of fields is the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)-funded project Using Citizen Science to Study the Social Behaviors of a Charismatic Rare Bat Species at Mammoth Cave National Park. The project brings together experts in informal science education, bat researchers, and computer scientists to develop a program for citizen scientists to tag the roosting behaviors of bats at Mammoth Cave via streaming video. Beyond the efforts to document the communal interactions of the bats are the evaluations of the experiences of the project participants, used to identify best practices for engaging diverse populations through citizen science.

Like bats, the night sky is a continual source of fascination. City Skies: Linking Neighborhoods with NASA Through Urban Astronomy “seeks to point out that the night sky is available to everyone, everywhere without special equipment”. City Skies is a NASA-funded project led by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The project engages families from inner-city communities in space science and technology through exploring the night sky. By partnering with community-based organizations, the project aims to build capacity for long-term sustainable programming in astronomy for these audiences. Most of us will experience the Year of Light as it is transmitted via human-made light sources, primarily streamed on the Internet as images, text, and video, to our LED displays.

One final project from our collection that harnessed these technologies to capture light and allow us to explore the night sky from the diurnal comfort of our homes is the television special Seeing In The Dark. According to the project proposal, Seeing In The Dark explores “the interaction between starlight and human beings who have a look for the love of it, whether just learning the constellations or doing amateur astronomy so advanced that it sometimes rivals professional research.” The film aired on prime-time PBS several years ago and now exists as a DVD, a book, and an interactive website.

There is a percentage of the world’s population that will be unable to appreciate the Year of Light as light. Similar to Tactile Dome, which asks visitors to use all of their senses except sight, visitors to Dialogue in the Dark, are guided by a blind individual through darkened rooms, specially designed to convey the experience of everyday environments such as a busy street, a bar, or a park. Without sight, visitors have to rely on constant dialogue to stay together while they discover the richness of our other senses. As described on the exhibition’s website, “A reversal of roles is created: people who can see are taken out of their familiar environment. Blind people provide them with security and a sense of orientation by transmitting to them a world without pictures”. One reviewer described the experience as an “extraordinary exploration of life without light”. There are many ways to be ‘in the dark’, and Dialogue in the Dark demonstrates that some individuals are more able than others to lead and facilitate learning in that environment.

Each of these projects and exhibits addresses the theme of darkness in a different way. Does your project or program address similar themes? We’d love to hear about it! Let us know by leaving a comment, reaching out to us on Twitter (@informalscience), or sending us an e-mail at caise@informalscience.org.