NAGT > Publications > In the Trenches > Mapping the Environment with Sensory Data

Mapping the Environment with Sensory Data

MICHAEL A. PHILLIPS (, Department of Natural Sciences, Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby, Illinois; LISA L. PHILLIPS (, English Studies, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois; and KATE J. DARBY (darbyk@, Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington

Fully understanding and characterizing environmental problems requires a transdisciplinary approach that draws not only from the physical and biological sciences (including the geosciences), but also from the social science and humanities fields in which human experience, narratives, and images are interpretable data. Mapping with human sensation (our senses) allows students to experience the movement of "contaminants" through the environment and helps students develop an understanding of how individuals living in proximity to environmental hazards are directly affected by those hazards.

Using our varied, yet overlapping, disciplinary backgrounds, we created a two- to three-week curricular module for undergraduate students that can be used across disciplinary contexts. The module is based on the collection and communication of sensory data — specifically, the collection of scents and sounds. Both scents and sounds move through the environment as directed by local conditions and dissipate in a manner similar to contaminants in water or air. Scents are often the first indication that something is amiss in the environment while sounds are often the most immediately disturbing signs of a human activity that disrupts the environment.

Data collection and analysis using scents and sounds is attractive to students because they are very familiar with them. Scents and sounds also have depth and complexity, and detection requires no special equipment. Some aspects, such as intensity of sound, can be quantified, yet other aspects, such as whether or not a sound or scent is pleasant, are inherently qualitative and can be very difficult to quantify.

The curricular module is divided into five separate units, each of which can be taught alone or with one or more of the other units. The module provides students with the opportunity to explore the impact of human-created and naturally occurring conditions, the effect on the lived environment, and the communication of results.

The first unit is designed to get students to think broadly about what constitutes data. After participating in a class discussion of "data," small groups are given data sets related to a water supply issue and asked whether they consider each set to be qualitative or quantitative. After the groups report out, the class as a whole discusses the value of each data set individually and as part of the whole.

The second unit introduces students to the process of collecting sensory data. Between class sessions, students keep a personal sensory log, which they bring to class. In class, students share and discuss their logs in pairs and then groups; the discussion prompt encourages students to consider clarity, significance, level of detail, comparability, and other aspects of data quality. The discussion provides a solid foundation for the third unit.

In the third unit, students work in groups to develop sensory data-collection methods and a field data-collection plan. Students are already equipped with the analytical equipment (ears and nose), although there will be variation in ability and sensitivity. In developing a data collection "protocol," they must take the time to consider how a variety of perceptions occur within a group of people who share a sensory experience and how the perceptual variety impacts data collection, analysis, and subsequent communication of results. The groups must discuss collection methods (e.g., three short sniffs vs one long sniff), instrument calibration (what constitutes a "strong" scent or a "loud" sound), and other aspects of data collection that could affect their results. To test their protocol further, groups exchange drafts of their collection protocol for field testing and critique.

After finalizing their data collection protocol, each group develops a field work plan and carries it out. The field work plan builds on the data collection protocol by having the student groups define a research question, assign roles and responsibilities, and identify additional data to be collected that could impact the results (including the weather and human factors). The groups are then given a week (or more) to carry out their field work.

The fourth unit is designed to help students develop their understanding of data analysis and presentation. Within the module, it takes place at the same time that the groups are performing their field work so that when they bring their data back, they will have a better understanding of how to analyze, assemble, and communicate the results. Groups are provided with one of three case studies; each case study includes data provided in a variety of formats, including maps, technical studies, and news reports. The groups discuss how the rhetorical effects of various data types and styles of reporting would influence diverse audiences and report their findings to the whole class for further discussion.

In the fifth (final) unit, students create a map of their field area showing the data they collected in a manner that will be meaningful to a selected audience (e.g., peers, community members, decisionmakers). The maps are displayed in a gallery walk for other students to observe and critique. Groups use the critiques to develop their final maps.

The module is designed to foster synthesis between sensory perception (what students smell, taste, hear, see, or feel) and geoscientific data (such as water samples and flow maps) to facilitate deeper analysis of environmental issues. By engaging with data as characterized by multiple disciplines, students are better able to understand how different disciplinary perspectives can be employed to engage a given audience in an appropriate, more meaningful manner. The use of immediate, personal sensory experience allows students to develop a deeper understanding of an environmental setting, making clearer the connections to more abstract numerical results associated with field equipment or laboratory results.

(Editor's note: This module is undergoing final review and revision, and will soon be available on the InTeGrate website.)