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Making the Grade with Human-Centric Lighting in Education

Should schools implement human-centric lighting – or take a wait-and-see approach?

illustration of student going through different activities of their day with a clock representing the hours
Published on: 11/17/2020

In a typical school year, U.S. students will average more than 1,100 hours in the classroom. Ideally, those hours build a foundation of education and social skills that supports happy, healthy futures. However, for students, teachers, school administrators and staff, they also represent a significant amount of time indoors away from natural light, which can have its own impact on health and mood.

This time spent indoors is in stark contrast to when humans were waking up, living, learning and thriving outdoors under the reliable and natural movement of the sun. It was in this environment that we developed our circadian cycle, a biological clock exquisitely calibrated to align our physiology to the different phases of a 24-hour day.

In modern society, most of us have lost that connection with the rhythm of the day as we live and work under non-tunable, artificial lighting. It can have a profound effect on human health, performance and well-being. And yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fully understanding the visual and nonvisual impact of light.

With what we know today, should educational institutions act now to implement human-centric lighting solutions—or take a wait-and-see approach?

What We Know

Three scientists won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work uncovering the molecular mechanisms controlling our circadian clock, including light’s powerful role. Their work identified intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), a nonvisual type of photoreceptor in the human eye, which have a different function than rods and cones.

This finding confirmed decades of previous research suggesting that a circadian rhythm synchronized to natural light helps us feel more energized during the day and sleep better at night. It also improves our immune system, lowers our stress and even reduces our risk for diseases like diabetes, obesity, cancer and mood disorders.

In contrast, if our circadian rhythm is misaligned – that is, if we get too little light from the blue end of the visible spectrum during the day, or too much of it at night – a host of negative consequences can arise, including agitation, chronic fatigue, an inability to concentrate and an increased risk for various diseases.

Through research like this, our industry is beginning to more fully understand the profound biological, functional and emotional effects that lighting has on people. With that, intense interest in the science of lighting is revealing exciting new ways to use the next best thing to sunlight—artificial lighting that emulates the spectral properties of natural light and the 24-hour cycle of the day.

Some lighting solutions offer automated or manual tuning of correlated color temperature (CCT) to change the ratio of blue light to the rest of the visible spectrum to mimic the gradual spectral shift of daylight from morning to evening. Factors such as the intensity and duration of the light at various wavelengths, the shift in light distribution across the day, glare and visual comfort must all be considered as well for their impact to circadian rhythm or other physiological effects.

What This Means for the Education Industry

Human-centric lighting has obvious, significant implications for educational facilities, especially classrooms, lecture halls and other learning environments. Around the globe, academic researchers and educators are conducting pilot programs and further research to assess and confirm potential benefits.

To date, the majority of evidence indicates that circadian-tuned lighting does confer general benefits such as improved alertness, energy levels and mood support for students, faculty, administrators and staff. The evidence is insufficient to unequivocally make this claim, but ongoing research findings and anecdotal reporting on pilot programs are promising.  

A few examples include:

  • Tunable LED systems were installed in elementary and middle school classrooms in Carrollton, a northern suburb of Dallas. An initial DOE report cited that participating teachers believed that the tunable LED system had improved the overall learning environment. 
  • In the state of Washington, multiple schools installed circadian lighting and reported that this tunable lighting improved the overall learning environment; with one reporting a significant rise in SAT scores.  The emerging evidence was positive enough to prompt the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol to encourage the use of tunable LED systems in the construction of all new school buildings.
  • In a study by Kyungah Choi and Professor Hyeon-Jeong Suk, students were exposed to 6500K cool white light and 3500K warm white light, and their physiological responses were captured with an electrocardiogram (ECG). The ECGs showed that cool white light was arousing and that the warm white light was relaxing. Another study showed student test scores improved under cool white light.
  • In a study with 84 pupils (grade 3, age 7 to 8), oral reading fluency was measured for two kinds of light conditions. Children in the group with optimized lighting started with a lower score and ended with a significantly higher score compared to the children in the control group.
  • Dutch investigations have shown that with higher illuminance levels and higher color temperatures (closer to daylight), academic performance improved, while a reduction of light levels and lower color temperature decreased agitation and classroom disturbances during lessons.

With benefits like these in mind, we developed our Cadiant™ Dynamic Lighting Experience to bring a realistic feeling of the outdoors into spaces where it was not otherwise possible to put windows or a real skylight. This product, along with other intelligent lighting solutions we offer feature the dimming, color tuning and spectral content needed to positively impact human performance and well-being.

Most of us are familiar with the consumer categories used to classify buying behavior when embracing a new technology or industry shift:  early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.  There are risks and benefits associated with each and making the right choice for human-centric lighting will largely depend on your specific goals, priorities and values. 

Education is among the industries expected to take an early lead in adopting human-centric lighting, along with healthcare.

The best advice is to ensure the lighting choices you make today are “future-proof” – flexible, intelligent lighting solutions that are configurable and programmable, so you can apply new research findings as they are validated.

Ready or not, lighting optimized for human health, performance and well-being is likely to be the next major game-changer in the lighting industry.

Learn More

To learn more about what the latest research and experts are saying about circadian lighting in the education settings, download our complete Ready, or not? whitepaper or contact us at +1.262.886.1900 or info@creelighting.com.

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