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An Illumination Investigation


Grade Range
Active Time
75 minutes
Total Time
90 minutes
works with google science journal app


light bulb

© 2017 California Academy of Sciences

With a few guidelines and some innovative thinking, we can design spaces to have sufficient light and be energy-efficient.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students will be able to:

  1. Analyze the illumination in a space using a digital light sensor.
  2. Design energy-efficient solutions to improper illumination.

Teacher Prep
  1. Familiarize yourself with the Science Journal smartphone app (how to collect and record data, and how to use the ambient light sensor).
  2. Print out one Student Worksheet per student and one Recommended Light Levels handout per group of 2-3 students.
Introduction and Warm-Up (10-15 min.)

Display Warm-Up Slide #1 for students to see, and give them about 2-3 minutes to write an answer to the question in their notebooks. Repeat with Warm-Up Slide #2. For the questions on slide #2, create two tables on the board to fill in as a class--see examples here.

Warm-Up Slide #1:
Did you know that as of 2012, 17% of all the electricity consumed in commercial buildings—places like office buildings, warehouses, and stores—was just for lighting? That's a large chunk of energy, but just over a decade ago, this number was 40%!

  • What do you think happened over the last 10-15 years to account for this reduction in electricity use from lighting?

Warm-Up Slide #2:
Having enough light in places like offices or classrooms is important for people to be able to do their work without straining their eyes. But sometimes there can be too much artificial light. Have you ever been in a room that felt uncomfortably bright, or left the lights on in an empty room? These are examples of 'over-illumination.' Over-illumination happens when there is an unnecessary amount of artificial light in a space, which wastes energy.

  • Can you think of other examples of over-illumination?
  • What might cause a space to be 'under-illuminated'?
Activity (~60 min.)
  1. In groups, ask students to brainstorm ways to fix the types of over-illumination listed in the table on the board (from the warm-up). Have students write one solution per sticky note and stick it in the table in the appropriate place. For example, you could fix leaving the lights on in an empty room by turning the lights off when you leave the room.
  2. Repeat the same process as above to brainstorm solutions for the problem of under-illumination.
  3. Hand out the Recommended Light Levels handout and give students a few minutes to look over it. Ask them to describe what they notice about the information on the handout and ask any questions they have.
  4. Pass out Student Worksheets and introduce the Challenge:

    Today you are going to visit different places around your school to:

    -Measure the illumination in each place and compare it to the Recommended Light Levels handout to determine if it is too high or too low.

    -Design a solution to fix one space's over-illumination if it is too bright, or to increase illumination in an energy-efficient manner if it is too low.

  5. Pass out the smart phones and run through a quick tutorial on how to use the Science Journal app and Ambient Light sensor (optional).
  6. Assign each group of students 1-2 places in the school to investigate. Give students about 10 minutes to take measurements and record their data in each place, then have them come back to the classroom to analyze their data.
  7. Once you are back in the classroom, inspire your students with examples of well-designed and energy-efficient spaces, such as the California Academy of Sciences building or other natural/artificial lighting ideas (you'll find many Pinterest boards!).
  8. Give each group a piece of poster board. Each group should choose one of the locations they investigated and design a solution for it, whether it was over-illuminated or under-illuminated. If the space they analyzed was properly illuminated, have students brainstorm a more energy-efficient way of lighting that space. Students will have about 15 minutes to draw up their designs on their poster board.
  9. Share out: Groups can share their designs with their classmates through presentations or a class gallery walk.
Additional Resources

Trends in Lighting in Commercial Buildings
Check out this U.S. Energy Information Administration's report to learn about how advents in new lighting technologies have allowed commercial buildings to significantly reduce their electricity use from lighting over the past 10+ years.

Connections to Standards

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas (grades 6-12)

  • ESS3.A: Natural Resources
  • ESS3.C : Human Impacts on Earth Systems
  • ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices

  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  • Designing Solutions
Free science fair projects.