Because we can, and because we should: An astronomy professor becomes a dark sky advocate

Three people stand before a storefront. A blue awning is above them printed with the words "Night Sky Coffee" in a lighter shade of blue. Lights are visible through the windows of the store. An A-frame sign with menu items appears at lower-left.
Starry Skies South members Sam Richey (UGA student), Michelle Wooten (UAB Professor), and Millie Finch share a quick hug at an impromptu meeting at Millie and her spouse Charlie's opening of Night Sky Coffee Roasters in Winder, Georgia in February 2024. Image courtesy of Michelle Wooten.

By Dr. Michelle Wooten (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

When considering the future of Earthen vitality, sometimes I feel challenged by the boundaries of the astronomical field. Many of us in the astronomy community – with the exception of some planetary scientists – have devoted our careers to a discipline whose focus is decidedly beyond Earth. I kept wondering: is there a meaningful way to partner our efforts to study the universe with our desire for a sustainable Earthen society?

To try and learn how I could answer this question, I attended a Science Education Resource Center (SERC) workshop devoted to this question in 2019. At the workshop, I learned how K-12 and college science educators were using instruction to do more than just teach sustainability concepts – they were enabling students to activate positive changes in their communities. I began to realize that within the purview of education, sustainability could be more than a topic: it could be an approach that spans one’s professional activities.

I embarked on a sustainable approach to my position as an assistant professor of astronomy education, starting with my teaching. I knew that light pollution affected both professional astronomers, and it probably affected my students, too. How did students react to assignments on this topic?:

I‘d never heard of light pollution before this class. I shared what I learned with my parents and they ended up changing their lights!

It was hard to do the assignment because I couldn’t see many stars.

After this class I’ve decided to leave UAB and continue studies at the college back in my rural hometown. I personally don’t identify with our light-polluted city.

It was clear that Alabamians think about and cherish the stars just like professional astronomers. Maybe we all just need a little guidance on how to improve our lighting. Changing our lighting to align with the 5 Principles of Responsible Outdoor Lighting could save us some energy, fossil fuel expenditure, and allow us to see more stars. I was starting to see more inroads to using light pollution as a basis of conversation toward a sustainable approach to my profession.

And yet, the more I studied light pollution, the more I learned about its profound negative effect on the health of our planetary home. The health of migratory birds, plants, and animals (humans, too!) depend on night and dark cycles for regulating circadian rhythms like sleeping, and for many species, navigation and predation. Furthermore, the human communities that are most often over-lit are those in which legislators assume more lighting will prevent crime. These communities, which disproportionately comprise people of color, are more vulnerable to health risks associated with regular extended exposure to artificial light at night, such as cancer, diabetes, and depression. In summary, I learned that darkness at night is required for socioecological justice.

Suddenly my interests in a sustainable approach to my profession had a multi-disciplinary and multi-community purview. A few years in, I assert that there is no best pathway into this effort. Below I share some ideas on how to get started, based on my own experience:

  • Make use of a wealth of readymade resources. Astronomers can look for support and inspiration from DarkSky International, the IAU’s Dark and Quiet Skies Project, and the AAS Light Pollution subcommittee of the Committee for the Protection of Astronomy and the Space Environment. These organizations have a wealth of resources to get informed on and educate others about the deleterious effects of light pollution, including readymade curricula, monthly educational programming and data collection campaigns, and free educational brochures to pass out in your community.

  • Pick one activity for your entry. There are many ways to get involved in dark skies advocacy, and I started with teaching. Be patient with your professional constraints and try one thing at a time.

    • Try assigning a Globe at Night monthly campaign as a homework assignment in your intro astronomy course.

    • Submit an editorial to your campus or community newspaper about the importance of dark-sky friendly lighting.

    • Work with your campus facilities on updating their lighting management plan.

    • Collaborate with other interested organizations and create an International Dark-Sky Week (IDSW) event in your community to create awareness of the importance of dark skies. This week is usually the week spanning the new moon in April, on dates determined by DarkSky International. I am now giving my third annual IDSW event at my local State Park organized by three activities: (i) a presentation advocating for dark skies, (ii) a nature night hike by Park staff, and (iii) telescope viewing with the local astronomical society. This kind of event is completely free for and voluntary for all participants – the Park staff seem to love collaborating on these kinds of events and don’t charge a dime.

  • Support collective action. Along my academic journey, I learned that collectives are often more powerful and successful than individuals when it comes to creating community change. DarkSky International has a map of all the collectives (called “chapters”) working around the world to educate the public about light pollution. Who can participate in these Chapters? Anyone with an interest. In the Chapter I lead, Starry Skies South, we have coffee shop owners, librarians, technicians, other astronomy professors, retirees, high school and university students, and more. Imagine the delight in working with this broad range of expertise on a shared goal!

And if there isn’t a DarkSky chapter near you, you can make one. That’s what I did, because DarkSky gave me the know-how. In my own Southeastern corner of the United States, I noticed a string of states without a DarkSky Chapter, including Alabama. I stimulated discussion at astronomy clubs in Alabama to assess interest in collective action. We met together virtually for the first time in April 2022 and voted to propose ourselves as a Southeastern United States DarkSky regional chapter: Starry Skies South ( The group quickly expanded beyond Alabama; people living in Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and even DarkSky North Carolina (led by astronomer Dan Caton) members have joined. You can follow our efforts on social media or during our monthly virtual meeting.