White crunchy snow surrounds Umeå’s biggest high school, but at just 2pm the sky is almost pitch black. With temperatures hovering just above freezing, students with afternoon free periods are leaving the building bundled into thick winter coats, their eyes peeping out between woollen scarves and hats.
Not far from the Arctic Circle, in this town there is less than an hour of sunlight on an average day in December. Sometimes the sun doesn’t show through the clouds at all.
“Many people in the city feel tired during the winter here in northern Sweden. For students in particular it can be hard to focus,” Stefan Andersson, one of the school’s head teachers, tells The Local.
But he is hoping that pupils’ concentration will improve thanks to 140 brand new light therapy lamps installed in seven classrooms and the school’s canteen at the start of this month.
The lamps offer a brighter light than ordinary bulbs and mimic the sun by offering a full spectrum of light wavelengths. Like sunlight, they also release vitamin D, which helps to fight depression.
The idea is that while more than two thousand pupils and teachers at the school will rarely see natural daylight during the week between now and February, they will start to feel as though they have spent more time outdoors.
“So far it seems to have been a success, the pupils are happier and have more energy,” argues Andersson.
Benjamin Berkgnholn, 18, who has lived in Umeå for eight years is quick to agree:
“It is dark when I go to school and dark when I get home from school so it is a good idea that they make the lamps brighter. For example I came to my maths class pretty tired and the lamps made me more awake and helped me work more”.
Other students at the school also appear invigorated, laughing and joking in the school canteen where there is also a giant projector showing a film of a log fire flickering and a real-life floor-to-ceiling fir tree.
Head teacher Stefan Andersson beneath some of the new lamps. Photo: The Local
The new therapy lights are solar powered, with the energy fuelling them collected between June and August, when the city enjoyed an unexpected heatwave, with 915 hours of sunlight. They were donated by regional renewable energy company Umeå Energi, which previously made international headlines in 2012 when it installed therapy lights at some of the city’s bus stops.
"We had an excellent summer with lots of sun and we gathered a lot of solar power. We thought about giving back some sun to some of the people most affected by the dark, when they needed it the most", says Agneta Filén, Marketing and Sales Director at Umea Energi.
"The students are the future and need the most help to get through the dark winter."
Previous studies in Sweden have shown that having brighter lights in classrooms can affect learning, especially during the winter. Both the energy company and teachers at the school are hoping the new light lamps will eventually improve grades at a time when the country's tumbling score in international school rankings is in focus.
"It is too early to say if the lights will improve grades. But we looked at lots of research and could not find any studies suggesting the lights could have a negative impact on students, so we wanted to give them a go," says Andersson.
The sun peeps out from clouds above Umeå at 12.30pm. Photo: The Local
Other experts in light therapy have also been quick to praise the trial, which is believed to be the first long-term project of its kind in a Swedish high school.
"I think the lights will make a difference if they are used throughout the whole season," Baba Pendse a Senior Consultant psychiatrist at Skåne University Hospital and one of the country's leading voices on seasonal affective disorder tells The Local.
"But on a practical level storing solar energy can take up a lot of space, so finding room for these cells to be used in more urban areas of Sweden might be more tricky."
He also warns that while the lights are likely to help pupils who are largely healthy, teachers should also keep an eye out for students who become especially low during the winter and could be experiencing seasonal depression or more serious psychological problems.
"These lights should not be a substitute for spending time outside, and students must continue to do this during lunch breaks and at weekends," he says.
"Depression is a serious issue and we must not forget that some students need extra help".