We all know that lighting has an important influence on our moods. A rainy, dreary day can make us sleepy and lethargic, while a beautiful sunny day can make us feel happy and energized. The implications of this relationship become even more important in the context of education. Can lighting in campus buildings have a substantial impact on student well-being and learning?
A review of recent scholarly articles makes it clear that students’ comfort, mood, focus, motivation, attendance, concentration, and cognition are all influenced by lighting. Even the Google algorithm seems to “know” this to be true: As I did a simple search on “importance of lighting on educational facilities,” an additional phrase was suggested before I hit Enter: “as an indispensable component.”
Identifying Conflicts or Disconnects
In May-October 2021, the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability completed a classroom lighting life-cycle analysis to identify conflicts or disconnects between operational units and processes that interact with campus lighting in any way. The processes we analyzed pertained to a wide range of campus units, from procurement to student accommodations. The goal of the analysis was to improve the overall lighting in campus learning spaces. Our findings were surprising; there were simple lessons, which I will explain later, but the most critical discovery was the lack of interconnectivity among various areas on campus, including instructional design, student accommodations, and operational teams. But before I elaborate, let me first describe the structure of our analysis.
To begin with, we conducted a network analysis to identify all of our institutional departments that impact lighting in learning spaces. We generated the following list of campus stakeholders:
- Student accommodation services
- Instructional technology
- Capital planning
- Interior design
- Project managers
- Renovation services
- Waste & recycling
- Campus facilities management
- Electrical designers
- Individual facility managers
- Chemical safety
- Campus services
- CAD and building information management
- Customer service
- General classroom technology management
- Facilities physical accommodations
Each of the units had a role in the selection, maintenance, use, and safe disposal of lighting. In our conversations, we hoped to learn how each of the individuals in these units interacted with lighting in learning spaces, and to collect their suggestions for lighting-related process improvement among work units based on their own work experiences.
For each of the units listed, we:
- Identified 1-2 individuals who were considered experts in their unit based on recommendations by the unit lead
- Followed a consistent agenda during each conversation
- Asked each individual an identical list of questions
- Documented process flows if a process was discussed
- Sent the notes and process flow diagrams back to the interviewees for adjustments and approval
Once we met with all of the campus stakeholders, we reviewed all processes captured and identified areas where there were conflicts or disconnects to improve the processes overall.
Our interviews were eye-opening. For instance, despite the size and scale of UW-Madison, the McBurney Disability Resource Center goes to great lengths to help students. For each undergraduate student that requests assistance, this group has to adjust or modify anywhere from 6-10 rooms! In addition, they have to accommodate quickly to make sure they don’t lose too many days of instruction for the student. The students who request an accommodation frequently suffer such detrimental effects from the class environment—such as getting migraines from the lighting—that they often skip class.
Recently, a student who was unable to attend a laboratory class due to the bright fluorescent lights requested an accommodation. I was invited to attend a meeting and witness the analysis and creation of a potential solution to a student’s lighting accommodation request. We met at the classroom in question, and the two instructors discussed the issue along with the McBurney Disability Center and facility accommodations staff. After trying to shut off some of the lights, which didn’t work, the staff covered the bright fluorescent lights with easily removable, magnetic, off-white-colored diffusers. The coverings began above the area where the student normally sat and continued further in the direction of where the instructor would stand. Somehow that part of the room immediately felt cozy. The adjustments to the lighting were so much more appealing that all of us in attendance automatically congregated under the covered lights to finish our meeting. It was surprising how such a simple adjustment could make so much difference, even for those of us who were supposedly not sensitive to lighting—and the student, I was told later, was now able to attend the class.
Biggest Learning Outcomes
As a rule, every unit interviewed was highly dedicated to their function on campus, and every one of them was happy to meet, knowing that the purpose of my project was to uncover steps in their daily jobs that might be improved. We found that the units interviewed could be grouped into one of three areas: 1) design and management of facilities, 2) student accommodations, and 3) instructional design. The units identified and interviewed were limited to internal UW-Madison, since we believed that the major issues (if any) were internal. However, what we learned was that there was one external area that should have been included in the analysis:’ This was the state of Wisconsin’s Division of Facilities Development. Although this is not part of UW-Madison, they were mentioned many times during the conversations with units, and the state’s guidelines have a huge impact on campus lighting. For this reason, I am adding the Division of Facilities Development as area number.
We assumed that among the four areas’ processes, there were simple conflicts or disconnects that could be reconciled with a slight adjustment here or there. And indeed, there were some simple improvements that our discovery process brought to light. For example, when a minor change is made to a lighting fixture or controls, it needs to be accounted for in the “as-built drawings,” which are the documents that show how a building is actually constructed after modifications. Or when a student requests a lighting accommodation that requires a modification to the facility (as described in the example above), it should be tagged in the integrated work management system so there is a way to identify rooms that repeatedly need adjustments and perhaps need a permanent modification.
The critical discovery, however, was that the four areas listed above functioned well independently, but that their individual processes did not integrate with the others. For example, the trades are responsible for servicing lighting fixtures and controls that don’t work well. Over time, they have tremendous insight into which products work better and longer than others. Yet the warning to avoid purchasing those faulty products doesn’t get conveyed to the renovations and capital projects teams, since there is no feedback process to allow for it. This lack of integration prevents iterative improvement of the lighting in learning spaces.
Tearing Down Siloes
In any large organization, units can be unwittingly siloed off from others. This is no different at UW-Madison, where such silos can cause lighting in learning spaces to suffer. Since lighting is such a big factor in learning environments, we want to share our discoveries with others in the same field so they can learn with us.
At UW-Madison, there are two major steps we can take to address campus disconnects and student well-being. These are to:
1. Create a cross-functional advisory group on instructional design in order to:
a. Make connections between learning and spaces at UW-Madison; and,
b. Identify, adopt, and prioritize attributes that contribute most to student learning outcomes.
2. Identify the easiest way to incorporate adaptive lighting in as many educational spaces on campus as possible; this creates:
a. The opportunity for segmentation of lighting use in learning spaces; and,
b. The ability to accommodate student sensitivities.
Finally, there is an important new initiative at UW-Madison that could directly address the challenges uncovered in this analysis. UW-Madison recently launched the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring. Because this center is at the institutional level and will exist in the long term, it allows for cross-campus discussions of ideas to improve learning in various ways, such as addressing the connection between learning and spaces. It is now a matter of inviting the internal experts from facilities, instructional design, and accommodations to begin the conversation.
- Samani, Sanaz Ahmadpoor, and Soodeh Ahmadpoor Samani. “The impact of indoor lighting on students’ learning performance in learning environments: A knowledge internalization perspective.” International Journal of Business and Social Science 3, no. 24 (2012).
- Mott, Michael S., Daniel H. Robinson, Ashley Walden, Jodie Burnette, and Angela S. Rutherford. “Illuminating the effects of dynamic lighting on student learning.” Sage Open 2, no. 2 (2012): 2158244012445585.
Anjali Sridharan is neuroimaging research program manager at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and previously the business process manager at UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability. She can be reached at [email protected]. This is her first article for Facilities Manager.