Apr 27, 2020

The case for a curriculum framework

Teaching the TeachersBy Brienne Willcock

Last fall I taught a college lighting class for the first time. This class was the only exposure to lighting that interior design majors would have. And lighting was actually only half of the semester; the other half was spent on environmental systems—acoustics, mechanical, electrical, structural and plumbing. It was a whirlwind, with a new subject nearly each class period. It was tedious and a lot to expect from one class, of the students and, well, of me. I’d been at an MEP firm long enough to understand the importance of the systems, the main components and how critical coordination was, and so I laboriously navigated that until the fun part. Lighting.

I was given information from a previous professor and the course description. Here are just three of the lighting goals established (before me) for the students: demonstrate proficiency in conducting lighting measurements and calculations; synthesize design principles with lighting research and technical information in the resolution of lighting design problems; and design innovative psychological and physiological lighting effects. I spent nine years as a lighting designer and I’m still not sure I understand that last one. Or how to push students who are learning about lighting in eight weeks, hyper-focused on finding their own style and vision as fast as possible (interior design students, I see you—I was there once, too), to be able to competently execute innovative design.

There wasn’t a single objective out of the list of 22 that led us to obtain a basic understanding of how light works. The focus was how to use it to realize their own vision or system limitations. This was so strange to me, and maybe that’s a good thing, since the goal of bringing me in originally was so that I might help them rewrite their curriculum for lighting. “Lighting people are hard to find,” the program director told me at our first meeting. She knew the curriculum wasn’t what it could be but didn’t know how to elevate it. It was out of date in the simplest ways; for example, one slide deck from a past professor claimed LEDs weren’t ready for prime time. I would entertain that most colleges that offer one course in lighting are not internally equipped to write, or rewrite, curriculum for it.

Fundamentals of lighting (FOL) comes to mind as a possible starting point for a framework to lean on. But FOL doesn’t teach students how to use lighting in the real world, it teaches them what it is. Well, if you only have eight weeks—or even a full semester—how do you teach what light is and how to actually design with it, within the commercial cradle that’s jagged with misunderstanding? I don’t just mean a proficiency in understanding the aesthetic implications of a narrow spot optic vs. a wide flood (re: a VE effort last minute with something that doesn’t work), but I mean really instilling a set of skills that actually help with the navigation of a technology that moves, in a sales structure that’s layered, and maintaining an informed vision of design.

In hindsight, I wish I would’ve skipped the two class sessions (one week of the eight-week course) that I spent on legacy sources; stripped it back to a reference chart; and spent that time instead explaining the business of light. For example, the pitfalls of a source that is difficult to replace and maintain, and that they are responsible for understanding that. And while innovation is a good goal, sometimes a better goal is to ensure that a client gets lighting they understand.

So let’s say I’d had a better vision of what I wanted them to know. One major thing I’ve learned so far in working for the IES is the strength in numbers, and the benefit of consensus and peer review. There aren’t enough lighting professionals who have the time and expertise to meet with every college that offers one lighting class and develop a curriculum that’s as up to date as it needs to be. Most lighting professors develop their own way of teaching a course. My long-time mentor and friend Robert White (aka RDub), teaches lighting at four different colleges, in addition to being a principal of a firm. Why four? Because lighting people are hard to come by…I’ve mentioned that, right? I would also venture to say that the amount of people who majored in lighting (I didn’t, my professor in college didn’t, RDub didn’t) and teach lighting, is very low. In Michigan, where I write this from, there is no university with a dedicated lighting program; and there are only two “hubs” of lighting information where the two IES Sections are: Detroit and Grand Rapids. Yet, people are teaching lighting, all over the state.

I asked RDub what his experience was in living up to the objectives set forth by different colleges for his lighting classes, and if there was a particular objective he noticed stood out as difficult—knowing he has nearly 30 years of lighting experience. In other words, way more qualified than I am to teach a college course in lighting. “For me design theory and how the kit of parts is typically used for different types of projects—it’s difficult to relay the more in-depth design considerations in a single semester. Also, being asked to cram in non lighting related design things like HVAC and A/V.” He added, “Exhibiting student learning outcomes that prove understanding has been a bit of a challenge.”

The IES is in a unique position to create a framework, based on the semester-long schedule of a college course (saying a little prayer here for the people like me that had to condense it to half a semester), that guides someone through the fundamentals of lighting, but beyond that provides an education of the business of light. It was easy to say to my students during a complex mechanical systems discussion, “I need you to understand the value of this coordination, and respect this discipline, but you will have a mechanical engineer to lean on for this, it is not up to you.” I could not say the same of lighting.

I am not suggesting a one-size-fits-all lighting curriculum framework. I am, however, suggesting that we, as the IES, could offer in the future a different type of support to the people teaching our future lighting peers. What did RDub think? “I would definitely be open to using what the IES develops. The information would be well-vetted and perhaps more balanced than what I have developed over the years.”

Balance is the key in objectives, in expectations and for the future of designers working with a technology that changes. It’s something I didn’t find, and I think maybe now’s the time to create it.


Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman joined the IES staff in 2019, and is now the IES Director of Education and Standards. With the help of important advisors in the IES membership and a dedicated staff, she leads the strategy for content development in technical standards and in education. Her... More info »