InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Mapping the Environment with Sensory Perception > Unit 3: Sensory Data Collection > Part 2: Field work planning & investigation
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Part 2: Field work planning & investigation

Mike Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College,
Kate Darby, Western Washington University,
Lisa Phillips, Illinois State University,


In Part 2 of this unit, student groups will plan and execute the field collection of sensory data (scents and/or sounds) using previously developed data collection protocols. The advantage of using sensory data is that students are equipped with the analytical equipment (ears and nose) and are familiar with its use.

Class time will be devoted to developing a field investigation plan. Students will create guiding questions and choose a study area, develop or obtain maps of the study area, assign field roles to group members, and develop a timeline for completion of fieldwork. The plan will need to ensure proper execution of data collection protocol, a clear record of the data collected, and a record of field conditions.

Careful planning of fieldwork is important to ensure that the time in the field is utilized efficiently and effectively and that the data collected meets the intended requirements. Likewise, an environmental professional (such as a geoscientist) undertaking an environmental investigation would need to develop a field investigation plan to meet the needs of the investigation.

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Learning Goals

Students will plan and execute a field study in which they will collect sensory data using a data collection protocol they have previously created.

Context for Use

Now that students have some experience developing data collection protocols, this part of the unit guides students through the process of developing and executing a plan for the collection of field data aimed at exploring a specific guiding question. Students will need to record data that can be analyzed and displayed, and record field conditions. The sensory data collected will be scents or sounds because they are easily collected but challenging to characterize, they move through the environment subject to local conditions much like contaminants do (and can be indicators of contamination), and they can have a direct and immediate impact on a local population.

Researchers (such as geoscientists) need to have a plan before going into the field. The plan ensures that the necessary equipment and personnel are available and that relevant data is collected and recorded. As with the data collection protocols, the field investigation plan will help to ensure that fieldwork occurs in a systematic manner and that information gathered is scientifically valid. Environmental fieldwork typically crosses disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries, and a successful field investigation plan will describe and assign specific roles to group members in consideration of abilities.

Prior to this unit, students will:

  • be familiar with the difference between qualitative and quantitative data (Unit 1 of this module)
  • be familiar with objective and subjective observations (Unit 1 and Unit 2 of this module)
  • be familiar with collecting and recording data (Unit 2 of this module)
  • be familiar with using maps to determine and record their location
  • have completed a unit in which they develop a sensory data collection protocol (Part 1 of this unit)

In this unit, students will prepare a base map on which to record their locations. Map use and development are also topics in Units 4 and 5 in this module. Students should be familiar with maps and their use; however, cartography is not a topic covered in detail in this module. The selection and preparation of the base map will depend on prior instruction and experience, and appropriate base maps will vary from class to class. Some options for base maps are discussed in the Teaching Notes and Tips section below. In addition, sources of more information on mapmaking are provided in the References and Resources section below.

If students are using a GPS device to record their locations, they will need to be familiar with the operation of that equipment.

In addition to collecting sensory data, students will need to observe and keep a record of their physical surroundings. It is especially important that they keep a record of geophysical and biological systems conditions (inputs) that will impact the movement of smells and sounds and, ultimately, the reception of the sensory outputs. The environmental conditions (systems inputs) include wind speed and direction, air temperature, surface topography, and vegetation. An accurate record of these conditions will be necessary when analyzing the data in order to determine the source(s) as well as the receptors likely to be impacted. Because the inputs can vary significantly from day to day, this record will also be important for comparison with the results of other field data collected.

Fieldwork requires time outside of class, ideally over a weekend to allow students some flexibility for meeting times based on their schedules and the weather.

Within one to two weeks of completing this unit, students will prepare maps to display the collected data and characterize the study area and write a short reflection paper that will include a discussion of field conditions and data collection methods (Unit 5 of this module). Students may also use the collected data to compare and contrast field locations, analyze how scents and sounds move through the environment and trace them to their sources, and analyze the potential impact of scents and sounds on the people that live within the area of investigation.

Description and Teaching Materials


Students will need writing materials and their natural senses (nose, ears). It is possible that some students may have sensory limitations; such limitations should be incorporated into the discussion and the development of the field investigation plan.

To facilitate the gallery walk, instructors may wish to provide either large sheets of paper and tape, or sheets from self-stick wall pads of paper.

It is helpful to provide students with access to aerial imagery of the field area from which they will develop their own maps (Google Maps, MapQuest, Yahoo Maps, and Google Earth are all good options). Students may use GPS units or their cell phones to record their locations; if so, they will need to be familiar with the operation of the equipment. Some groups may choose to collect sound data using a freely available smart phone app; if so, they will need to have a device that meets the app's specifications and they will need to develop working knowledge of the app. In addition, they will need to collect data on additional aspects of sounds that cannot be logged by the app. Students will adapt their previously developed data collection protocols (from Part 1 of this unit) for their mapping project.


This module is to be conducted by groups and includes fieldwork. Each group should have four to six students, and group membership may be assigned by the instructor or self-selected by the students. It is important that the students within the group are comfortable with each other and are able to coordinate their schedules in order to complete the fieldwork within a short (one-week) time period.

Introduction (10 min)

To help students understand the purpose of the field investigation, the instructor will begin by reviewing the impact of sounds and scents on people where they live. The instructor may have several students describe personal experiences with sounds and or smells and the impact those sensory experiences have had. The discussion should include a consideration of the sensory experiences as components of larger systems where the variability in perceived experiences is related to the interacting systems that produce the sensory output. Alternatively, the instructor may share a written, audio, or video report describing the impact of sounds or scents on a community. (Examples are provided below.)

After describing several experiences, the class should develop a list of reasons for the scientific documentation of the sensory impacts. Depending on the time available, the discussion can take place in groups with a report out to the class after five minutes, or the discussion can be a five-minute class discussion. A primary goal of this discussion is to explore the difference between anecdotal information and scientific data collected using a field investigation plan and established protocols. A secondary goal is to help students consider the possible uses of the data they collect, including the determination of the needs for and the location of future sample collection including that of air, water, and soil samples that would be collected for laboratory analyses.

Developing Guiding Questions and Predictions (20–30 min)

In the culminating activity for this module, students will work in groups to create a sensory map. To frame this project, the student groups should begin by developing a guiding question (i.e. research question) for their collection of smell or sound data.

Although researchers in different fields sometimes follow varied research processes, the process of research and inquiry across most disciplines includes one shared component: that work is driven by a guiding question, research question and/or set of hypotheses.

The instructor will explain that guiding questions should address the following goals:

  1. Answerable: The students have limited, but powerful tools at their disposal. They may choose to rely on their own sensory perceptions of sounds and smells. If the group chooses to examine sounds, they may choose to measure sound amplitude using a smart phone app. The guiding question should be answerable given these available tools. Examples of guiding questions:Answerable: Where is the quietest place in the library? NOT answerable (in this context): How does the type of noise affect student learning in the library?
  2. Specific: The students will have a limited amount of time to collect their data, and a more specific guiding question will likely lead to more interesting data and maps. This will also allow students to identify interesting patterns in their data. Examples of guiding questions: Sufficiently specific: What odors are present near Jackson Hall? NOT sufficiently specific: How do smells vary across campus?
  3. Interesting and applicable: The instructor should encourage students to develop a guiding question emerging from a topic of interest to them. Ultimately, the research should link to broader socio-environmental concerns. This goal addresses the "so what?" question associated with the group's project. Students should begin to think about how exploring their guiding question might help better understand socio-environmental challenges. An example: If the students are interested in how forests buffer freeway noise, they may link to broader concerns about conservation and preservation of open space and the ecosystem services those spaces may provide.

The instructor should convene the groups and ask each group to brainstorm a set of guiding questions. Using the three considerations listed above to hone their ideas, each group should choose one guiding question for the final project. Each group will then present their guiding question, justifying their choice in light of the three considerations presented earlier.

Researchers also tend to begin their inquiry with a set of predictions, or hypotheses. These predictions may be established from prior research or extension of prior research, logic, personal experience, or even a "hunch." Instructors should ask each group to create a set of predictions about their data. Students will work in their groups to create a series of predictions, using the following questions to guide their discussion:

  • What findings do you expect to uncover with your data? What patterns are you likely to see? What leads you to these predictions?
  • How might the characteristics of the research impact your findings?
  • How might environmental conditions impact your findings?

After groups have completed this activity, they will briefly report their predictions and justification for those predictions to the class.

Group field plan development (30–40 min)

Once student groups have created their guiding questions and predictions, the instructor should lead the class in identifying necessary components of a field investigation plan. The class and instructor may brainstorm ideas for minimum required components in the plan and synthesize those components on the board or screen, or the minimum required components can be provided by the instructor in a handout. The final list needs to include, at a minimum:

  • Guiding question and predictions
  • Assigned data collectors
  • A copy of the protocols to be used
  • A base map of the area
  • A table for data entry
  • A schedule, and
  • A place to record field conditions (weather conditions, traffic, topography, etc.)

The instructor should guide the discussion through questioning the class in order to ensure these elements are included. If appropriate, the instructor should prompt the students to consider variations in field plan components based on the study's guiding questions.

The instructor will direct the groups to develop their field plans and to select potential study areas that make sense given their guiding questions. Students should be encouraged to select study areas near or within the campus. Depending on their group's guiding question, students may choose to select two areas in which to collect sensory data for later comparison. During this time, the groups may also need to revisit their data collection protocols. Each group will have 20–25 minutes to develop draft plans that identify field duties and assign responsibilities according to field investigation plan outline.

One of the required elements is to have a base map of the area. The base map should be an aerial image or the floor plan of a building. If the room has access to computers and printers, the groups should use an online mapping resources (such as Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Google Earth, or MapQuest) to locate their study area and print out an aerial image to use during the fieldwork. The instructor may guide students through this process. If the previous course content has not included any instruction on spatial interpretation or mapping, the instructor may wish to introduce some basic concepts here (see mapmaking resources at the bottom of the page).

As teams are completing this task, the instructor should ask each team to revisit its guiding question to ensure that executing the field plan will help the team address this question.

Field plan review and revision (20 min)

When the groups have developed their plans, each group will post its plans on the wall of the room, and the class will have 10 minutes for a gallery walk. Post-its should be used to place comments and suggestions on each group's plan, and students may be provided with an assessment rubric listing the required and optional elements (at a minimum, the instructor should complete a rubric for each group). Each group will have 10 minutes to review the gallery walk comments and finalize its plans. (The instructor should monitor group progress and may wrap up the plan development phase early, if appropriate. The extra time can be used for the gallery walk or revisions.)

Each group will submit its final plans and, if applicable, amended data collection protocols to the instructor prior to completing the fieldwork (either in class or electronically). The instructor should look over the plans quickly before the students begin work to identify any concerns not addressed after the gallery walk.

Students will have between one and two weeks to complete their fieldwork. The time for completion should include at least one weekend. Additional suggestions are provided below.

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is important that the students develop the data collection protocols and test them prior to executing this unit. The students need to understand what is to be collected, how it is to be collected, and the justification for the collection protocol.

Study areas should be easily accessible sites that align with the group's guiding questions. The instructor may wish to identify potential areas of interest by visiting them prior to the assignment. However, if students are aware that an area has been preselected, they are likely to attempt to identify what they think the instructor wants them to find rather than being open to a unique experience. Alternatives to off-campus sites include areas on campus or within campus buildings. Working inside a building removes the variables associated with weather, such as air temperature and wind, which can change the sensory experience. Indoors, scents and sounds tend to be more consistent and can be more readily traced to their sources; for example, scents tend to follow the air flow within a building. This has the advantage of enabling students to more easily trace a "contamination" plume back to its source but the disadvantage of losing the complexity inherent in more natural environments.

Groups may study the same area or different areas depending on the overall goals of the instructor and their guiding questions. In either case, the groups will be able to compare their data sets. If groups work in the same neighborhoods, they will be able to look for similarities and differences and analyze the potential sources of differing results.

Base map selection and use will depend on the prior experience of the students and may be addressed in prior units of the course. Base map options include:

  • A paper USGS Topographic Quadrangle. This is the type of base map most commonly used by geoscientists. The characteristics and use would typically be covered in a lab or lecture unit in most introductory geoscience courses; this is a good option in such courses. Students may photocopy the relevant portion of the map, use tracing paper to develop a base map with relevant features, or may acquire an original map.
  • Aerial imagery is available from a wide variety of sources including Google Maps, MapQuest, Yahoo Maps, and Google Earth. Each of these is easy to use and allows students to zoom in to an appropriate scale and print a custom area. Google Earth requires special (free) software and allows students to plot points and display data. As with a topographic map, students can use tracing paper to develop a base map with relevant features.
  • Direct field mapping is a useful skill and allows students to create maps that display only relevant data. Developing a good sketch map requires practice in order to maintain scale and map efficiently. Students would need to assign a member of the group to develop a base sketch map prior to fieldwork, and the instructor would need to provide special instruction if students had not received it in a previous class.

A number of multi-platform smartphone apps can be used to collect sound data. The Noisetube app has been heavily tested and calibrated for different smartphone models. It also provides a user-friendly interface. Students using this type of app need to recognize that volume is only one way to measure sounds. They should also identify (and record) other aspects of the sounds they are measuring. It is important to emphasize to students that simply recording the strength of a sound is not enough to characterize a location.

Field data collection takes place within a complex of interacting systems. Environmental scientists working in the field need to make observations and choose sampling locations based on extant environmental conditions; likewise, students may need to develop a field plan that allows for adjustment based on conditions such as wind direction and speed, air temperature, and the location of potentially impacted populations. The field investigation plan needs to include the observation and recording of relevant environmental conditions; students should be explicit about the conditions that will be recorded.

A field investigation team works best when team members take on different, complementary roles; each group needs to consider the strengths of the members and assign roles accordingly. The final data plans should, at a minimum, include: assigned data collectors, a copy of the protocols to be used, a base map of the area, a table for data entry, a schedule, a place to record field conditions (weather, traffic, etc.). The plans may include other duty assignments such as: field team leader, safety officer, public relations officer, recorder, and mapper.

The guiding question will impact the data that is collected. For example, if the group is exploring the impact of scents or sounds on a neighborhood, members may want to collect demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, or another source. If the group is tracing scents or sounds to a source, members will need to observe wind direction and identify potential sources. These aspects of investigation should be discussed during the development of required field plan elements and should be apparent and commented on during the gallery walk.

The field investigation should be completed within one week. If the course includes a lab section, lab time may be designated for fieldwork.


Formative assessments should take place throughout the unit. The unit is designed to have students assess each other's work and make suggestions for improvement. Key assessment points are: 1) when students discuss the difference between anecdotal information and scientific data; 2) when groups develop their guiding question and associated predictions; 3) when students discuss (and develop) the field investigation plan outline; 4) when groups participate in the gallery walk of field investigation plans.

While groups are working and sharing, the instructor should monitor the groups to ensure that student discussions are substantive. The development of the field investigation plan is intended to be student-driven; students should be prompted to consider how well the plan will work, especially the ease of implementation, the utility and reproducibility of the resulting data, and the record of relevant field conditions.

A sample (blank) field plan and an assessment rubric are attached here: Sample field plan & field plan assessment rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 67kB Jun16 15) The instructor may choose to use the rubric to provide feedback to each group during the gallery walk and/or the instructor may provide the rubric for students to use during the gallery walk. Completed rubrics should be provided directly to the group to aid in revisions.

The field investigation plan should be included as part of the final project submission in support of the collected data.

References and Resources

Measuring sound with smartphones:

Decibel meter app for smartphone, Noisetube app

Maisonneuve, N., Stevens, M., Niessen, M. E., Hanappe, P., & Steels, L. (2009). Citizen noise pollution monitoring. In Proceedings of the 10th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research: Social Networks: Making Connections between Citizens, Data and Government (pp. 96–103). Digital Government Society of North America.

Maisonneuve, N., Stevens, M., & Ochab, B. (2010). Participatory noise pollution monitoring using mobile phones. Information Polity, 15(1), 51–71.

Communities impacted by scents or sounds:

Irwindale, California, Sriracha hot sauce plant odor:

Windsor, Ontario, "Windsor Hum":

Chicago, Illinois, Blommer Chocolate Co. odor:

Guidance for Facilitating Gallery Walks: Gallery Walk module from Starting Point

Mapmaking (Cartography) Resources for Students and Instructors:

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »