Shorthorn Light Swap Challenge takes students door to door promoting dark skies 

Marfa senior Aubrie Aguilar participates in a lighting demonstration with Bill Wren. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

MARFA — Members of Marfa High School’s environmental science and scientific studies classes recently received a crash course in environmental advocacy by knocking on the doors of their neighbors to encourage them to swap out old mercury vapor lights for new dark sky-friendly illumination. 

The project, called the Shorthorn Light Swap Challenge, was facilitated by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) and the local school district and took place from September through November. Students formed teams and worked off of a map of noncompliant lights around town provided by BBCA, who has been working with American Electric Power (AEP) to decrease light pollution in the tri-county region over the past year as part of their “Serious Starlight” program. 

Marfa ISD students sit for lectures on the Big Bend region’s dark skies. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

Before students took to the streets to pitch the shielded, warm-toned street lights, they sat for three lectures on dark skies by visiting experts — the first on artificial lights and the impacts on Chihuahuan Desert birds by Emily Card with Sul Ross Borderlands Research Institute; the second on the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve by Bill Wren, who recently retired from the McDonald Observatory and also gave a lighting demonstration; and the third from Shelley Bernstein, executive director of BBCA, who presented on the dark sky comparisons in the region and why reducing light pollution in Marfa matters. 

Bernstein introduced students to the Bortle scale, a numeric scale which ranks night skies from 1 to 9 based on the visibility of the stars and galaxy — 1 being “an excellent dark sky night” and 9 being “an inner city sky.” Marfa, she said, is a 3 on the scale. 

Student Samuel Salgado said learning Marfa’s light pollution is at level three surprised him. “It was really interesting to me that Marfa was at level 3. Even though it’s such a small town, that just goes to show, imagine what big cities are like,” said Salgado. “That’s what made me more interested in it.” 

After the introductory presentations, students received instructions on the light swap challenge, which was designed to give them points for visiting targeted locations, completing lighting applications and getting copies of utility bills. They worked knowing there was prize money for the top finishers, who were announced at a star party held last week at El Cosmico. 

Students who competed in the Shorthorn Light Swap challenge to promote dark skies attend a star party at El Cosmico. Photo by Jacqueline Gilles.

All in all, said Bernstein, students successfully changed 16 lights around town out of 42 noncompliant lights, a 38% success rate, which she said is high for this type of endeavor. She said the students also assisted greatly in gathering helpful information through crowdsourcing — determining whether a house was occupied, if an owner was unable to be contacted, and more. Among the most significant locations students were able to obtain lighting agreements for was Marfa Villa Housing, where six lights total will be changed, making a big impact on light pollution on the east side of town, said Bernstein. 

Team “DAJAS,” so named for its members Dimetrey Stewart, Aubrie Aguilar, Janelly Pereira, Alex Luna and Samuel Salgado, came in first place, earning a total of 3,270 points and $500 in prize money. Luna said he secured the Marfa Villa agreement by going by the complex during lunch in order to beat rival teams. 

“I was driving around, I was going door to door knocking. I got a few applications. And then the next day — it was actually during a school day — Aubrey told me that they had like five or six lights open at Marfa Villa.” said Luna. “I ended up being late when I got back, but it was fine. I got the lights and I got the five applications.” 

Pereira, who also works at Porter’s, set up a meeting with the store’s management and successfully got an application to get one of their lights fixed. Aguliar, who was motivated to win from the start, said she lucked out when she discovered one of the noncompliant lights was on her grandma’s property. Aguliar gave a presentation to her grandma and succeeded in getting her on board with the initiative. 

Students said at first it was intimidating approaching people about their lights and asking them for copies of their utility bills — which contain helpful account numbers that tell AEP exactly which lights to swap out — but it allowed them to learn who was willing to change out their lights and which houses had already been hit up by the competing teams. 

Abandoned properties or absentee homeowners were a common occurrence, said the students. “I think the biggest problem is there’s a lot of them on properties that aren’t even being used,” said Salgado. “It’s hard to contact someone.” 

Shorthorn Light Swap Challenge participants said learning about the undesirable old mercury vapor lights changed the way they view their surroundings in Marfa and allowed them to be more clued into lighting that preserves the area’s night skies. 

“I think it was a fun experience for most of us. Just going around, getting out of the house or talking to people and helping with the environment and everything, it was cool,” said Luna.  

The second place team, “Jazz,” made up of Zaley Porter and Alexa Briones, earned a total of 2,000 points and won $300 in prize money. The third place team, dubbed “Bud Lights,” was composed of members Yvette Avila and Fernanda Rivera and earned a total of 1,270 points and $200. In fourth place was Juan Bautista, or “Juan’s Lights,” earning 1,010 points and $100. 

Students varied in how they intended to spend their coveted prize money. One said she was going to save it in order to buy Christmas presents, others said they were going to buy a pair of roller skates or allocate the funds for a trip to Concan, Texas, in the Hill Country. 

Teacher Elizabeth Donaldson said the light swap challenge fit in well with the scientific studies class’s project-based curriculum and allowed students to get out into their community. 

“Anything other than a classroom, right?” said Donaldson. “Anything to get them out of the classroom and show them how it relates to real life — that’s what it’s about.”