Solargraphy: A hyper-local outreach response to COVID-19

Last month, families using the Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks got an extra item in their parcels. Ogden Outreach Officer, Scott Walker provided 150 pinhole camera kits to be sent out to local food bank centres.

The aim of the project, which was part-funded by the Institute of Physics, was to help young people and families engage in topical science projects at a time where this has become increasingly difficult.

“Building a pinhole camera and using this to track the Sun is a really exciting thing to do,” says Scott. “And let’s face it, we have all needed a bit of light relief and distraction recently.”

Scott provided the kits with a full set of instructions on how to build and set up the cameras. Once in place, families will be able to track the Sun and create their own solar photos, known as solargraphs.

“Sending the kits out through the foodbank allows us to engage with a diverse group of families, most of whom we have not previously interacted with,” says Scott. “We are already thinking about other science kits we can design and distribute for these families to engage with at home.”

Below: you can read more from Scott about this pinhole camera project and his plans for future initiatives. You can also download the instructions and kit list and make your own pinhole camera.

Solargraph over Clifton Suspension Bridge

6 month exposure of rhe Clifton Suspension Bridge by Justin Quinnell (pinholephotography.org)

A “hyper-local” response to COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown period, there has been a real clamour to take teaching, learning and outreach online. There are many positive aspects to virtual learning, but I have real concerns that this can, and will, exacerbate educational inequalities due to the digital divide.

As such, I have been developing “hyper-local” outreach and public engagement initiatives to engage with, and support, local communities and groups that have been disproportionately affected by the current crisis. One such group are those who are now having to access food banks and it is this community that the pinhole camera project is initially serving.

Collaboration is key

A significant part of the scientific research output at Keele University comes courtesy of the Astrophysics Group, astrophysics being the application of physics to celestial objects, and I am continually looking for ways to engage the local community with this research and highlight its relevance and importance. It was around late April that I recalled a couple of years earlier, The Ogden Trust supported a Community Interest Company, Real Photography Company to deliver a number of events based on "light". One of these was a pinhole photography workshop. Instantly the two [astrophysics and pinhole photography] came together, and the solargraphy pinhole camera project was born! Solargraphy is a photographic method for recording the changing path of the Sun.

In order to get this project off the ground, I knew that collaborating was key. First and foremost, I contacted Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks who oversee 6 foodbanks within Newcastle-under-Lyme, the conurbation surrounding the university, to understand if this was something they felt would be of interest to their users. It transpired that they were hugely positive about this and there was a real sense of being able to bring a small piece of “science happiness” to those who really needed it.

The next stage was sourcing the required funding. Following a proposal to the West Midlands Branch of the Institute of Physics, I was granted ~£300 and this allowed me to create 200 “DIY pinhole camera kits”. These kits contained everything required to build a simple pinhole camera, including instructions and photographic paper that records an image when exposed to light.

Simplicity of design

The beauty of the chosen pinhole camera design, and the length of exposure [which can range from a few days to 6 months!] is that the solargraph that is produced does not require “developing” in the same way as traditional photographic paper images. This has several benefits, not least the expense of developer, fixer and stop bath solutions. To “develop” the solargraphs, all that is required is a smartphone and photo editing app, or flatbed scanner that can take a digital image of the solargraph and invert the colour, which flips the image from a “negative” to a “positive”.

Pinhole Camera in Situ

A pinhole camera in situ

The start of a long-term partnership

These kits were subsequently packaged and delivered to Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks Chesterton distribution centre and have all since been given to local families who are now getting involved and beginning to share their efforts online using the #UKSolargraph hashtag.

This is the first collaborative project with the local food banks and the initial feedback has been very positive. There has already been commitment from Higher Horizons+ [the local Uni Connect Programme] to match fund and provide a further 200 pinhole camera kits, and I am already in discussions with the IoP and planning 3 or 4 new kits, each allowing the users to investigate a different scientific phenomenon, to follow this one over the next 12 months.

Phases II & III: A nationwide school project

Following the success of phase I of the project, there has been huge interest from local schools to get involved. This has now developed into a full-blown UK wide schools science project courtesy of support from HH+ and Ogden Trust colleagues. As such, starting in September, schools as far north as Scotland, and as far south as Cornwall and many places in between, will begin building and installing their own pinhole cameras in order to populate a nationwide database of solargraphs, supporting the Science, D&T and Art & Design national curricula. These will then be made available publicly available to allow for a “research in schools” style follow up project, whereby students can analyse and interrogate the solargraphs to see if it is possible to identify the approximate location from which the solargraph was taken, based on the shape and trajectory of the suns path across it!

Why not join in over the summer? Download the Solargraphy Instructions‌ and Solargraphy Teacher Resource List‌ and make your own pinhole camera. If you get your aluminium can from the recycling, then the cost per pinhole camera is less than 45p!

If any schools would like to get involved and want to know more about the longer term research project then please get in touch: s.r.walker@keele.ac.uk

Don’t forget to share your images using the #UKSolargraph

Scott Walker
Ogden Outreach Officer (Keele University)


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