Indiana University students help national forest pursue dark sky designation

Student engineers provide Hoosier National Forest with sensor technology necessary to collect light pollution data for a Dark Sky designation


Carl Nelson


Jacob Simpson, Marshall Curry


Hoosier National Forest, Orange County, IN
Community Size
19,646 (2019 US Census Estimate)
Indiana University
Sustaining Hoosier Communities
Case Type
Project Stories
EPA Region 5, USA
Sustainable Development Goals
11 Sustainable Cities and Communities

Orange County is a rural southern Indiana community comprising four incorporated towns and a number of unincorporated communities. Residents are intent on celebrating the county’s industrial roots, natural beauty, and historic architecture while embracing and preparing for the future. Local progress is driven in large part by “grassroots cooperative leadership” (Report, Pg. 4), while legal and medical non-profits provide essential communal services. This community-oriented mentality lends itself to innovative partnerships between various actors working towards common goals in areas like infrastructure, culture, tourism, and healthcare. 

Regional national forest seeks to illuminate its assets

The Hoosier National Forest, partially located in Orange County, boasts exceptionally low light pollution and breathtaking, star-filled night skies. Hoping to receive recognition for its environmental assets, the forest wished to pursue a Dark Sky designation from the International Dark Sky Association. An official designation would attract tourists to the National Forest while demonstrating a commitment to natural preservation. In order to demonstrate their eligibility, forest management needed sensor technology to track light levels and collect site-specific light data.

Student engineers develop field-ready technology

Enter the Sustaining Hoosier Communities (SHC) program at Indiana University. Community Partner Sarah Hess enlisted the help of Professor Bryce Himebaugh and his advanced cyber-physical systems students in the IU School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. Himebaugh’s students were challenged to engineer a light tracking system from concept to execution. Participants worked to develop low-power light sensors and a compatible web interface to track light pollution in parts of the Hoosier National Forest.

Working together to make the stars align

Students designed, built, and tested low power light sensors, advancing the application process while gaining field experience. Next, forest management planned to deploy the sensors throughout Hoosier National Forest in order to generate the preliminary data needed to identify locations with low enough light pollution to qualify. The sensors will then be used in those select locations to collect the data necessary for a Dark Sky designation.

The night sky over Hoosier National Forest is a treasure residents want to share. Attaining a Dark Sky designation would attract new visitors to the unforgettable site. This project brought future engineers, astronomers, and problem solvers together with forest staff to achieve that goal.

Sustaining Hoosier Communities Contact Info
Jane Rogan
Sustaining Hoosier Communities Director
(812) 855-0568

Indiana University Faculty Contact Info
Bryce Himebaugh
(812) 855-6984

Orange County Contact Info
Andrea Crain
Hoosier National Forest

Read the full story of the partnership.

Read the final student report delivered to the local gov/community partner.

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