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Unit 5: Sensory Map Development

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


In this unit, student groups will use sensory data (scents and/or sounds) collected in the field to create maps of the sensory environment and relate their findings to larger environmental problems identified in their guiding questions and hypotheses. This unit is designed to build upon prior units in which students develop guiding questions and hypotheses, field data collection protocols, and field investigation plans. The field investigation will require a base map on which to record data and a final map on which to display data and characterize the study area and environmental impact of the mapped data. The base map will be derived from aerial imagery if the investigation site is outside. The base map will be derived from a building schematic or floor map if an interior location is mapped.

Class time will be devoted to developing maps on which students will display the data collected in the field. Students will use Google Earth or other online resources to obtain aerial (or other schematic) imagery of their study area. They may use an aerial image as a base map or they may draw their own maps based on the aerial imagery. If the site is indoors, a blueprint or floor plan can be the base map, or students can draw their own maps based on an existing image or schematic.

Sensory mapping allows students to identify scent plumes as they migrate away from source locations. Odor plumes and sounds are analogous to plumes of contaminants that migrate through groundwater, surface water, and air. In many instances, the presence of unusual odors is an indicator of migrating contaminants and can lead to sampling by environmental professionals (including geoscientists) to confirm and quantify contaminant migration through the environment. These maps serve as representations of the complex odor or sound systems in the students' chosen geographical areas.

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Learning Goals

Students will:

  • Evaluate and analyze collected data to characterize an environmental concern.
  • Use collected data to produce a map of sensory experience that conveys social and physical concerns clearly and accurately.

Context for Use

Field investigations require the use of maps to identify areas of interest and record and display collected data that characterizes an environmental concern. This unit guides students through the process of preparing a base map and recording field data on that map. The unit also guides students through the process of developing maps that can be used to characterize the results of a field investigation. Students will need to visit a field location following the development of a field investigation plan and sensory data collection protocol developed in class (Unit 3) and record data that can be analyzed and displayed. Students will need to analyze their field data and display it on a final map that clearly conveys the results in a manner that is meaningful to the viewer.

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 & Unit 3 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 (Unit 3 of this module)
  • have developed a guiding question and associated hypotheses (Unit 3 of this module)
  • have developed a field investigation plan that uses the base map to record field observations (Unit 3 of this module)
  • be familiar with different conceptual approaches to mapping environmental issues and the implications of using those approaches (Unit 4 of this module)

In conjunction with this unit, students may use the collected data to compare and contrast field locations, they may use systems thinking to analyze how scents and sounds move through the environment and trace them to their sources, and they may analyze the systemic (and systematic) impact of scents and sounds on the people that live within the area of investigation. The maps developed will be used to display these characterizations and will be accompanied by a short paper discussing field conditions and data collection methods.

The sensory maps can be used to identify locations in need of more in-depth investigation and sampling. A subsequent module could be developed wherein students develop a field work and sampling plan (for air, water, and/or soil) that would identify the contaminants through chemical analyses and confirm their source(s).

Description and Teaching Materials


Students will need writing materials and their natural senses (nose, ears). Students will need access to aerial imagery (Google Earth is the recommended resource, although Google Maps, MapQuest, ZeeMaps and similar programs with aerial imagery are acceptable alternatives) of the field area from which they will be required to develop their own maps. If students choose an indoor location to map, they will need access to a building schematic or blueprint. 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. Students will use previously developed data collection protocols and a concurrently developed field investigation plan when collecting field data.

Discussion and development of map elements (15 min)

To help students understand the use of maps, the instructor will begin by having students draw a sketch map of a route from the classroom to where they live. Pairs of students will exchange maps and discuss whether they would be able to arrive at the intended destination. The class will have a brief discussion of the strong and weak points of the sketch maps and will then develop a list of key elements that should be included on a map. These elements must include, at a minimum, an indication of scale, an indication of the orientation of the map (typically a north arrow), and a key to symbols used on the map.

The students should also have a brief discussion of map purpose and the relationship of the map's purpose to the information it does and does not contain and to their guiding question and hypotheses. In terms of interdisciplinary thinking, geoscientists use maps to record data during fieldwork and to display data in reports, and field maps typically contain more data than would be displayed on individual maps used in a report. Architects use blueprints and schematics to display building structure and mechanics to engineers and construction teams. Communication experts use maps to help people navigate an unfamiliar space with more comfort and ease. Artists may use maps to represent human experiences or to alter how we imagine a space. As the students use their field maps to develop their final maps, they will need to use their guiding question to determine the final purpose of their map and use that to determine what will be retained for the final display map.

Links to additional, easy-to-understand information on map development (cartography) are provided in the References and Resources section below.

Sensory map development (15–20 min)

Summative Assessment #4: Sensory Map & Rubrics (Microsoft Word 49kB May16 16)

To display the results of their field investigation, each student group needs to prepare a final map (or set of maps). To complete their fieldwork, each group will need to have obtained aerial imagery of their field area on one of the data sources provided; this should be part of the field data collection plan. If the field investigation is to take place inside a building, a floor plan of the building will serve as the base map. Each member of the group will need a copy of the aerial image (or floor plan) to use during sensory data collection in the field. As part of the field data collection plan, students should list the types of sensory data (per their developed protocol) and other observations they intend to record on their maps in keeping with their guiding question and hypotheses. This work should take place as part of the planning process outlined in Unit 3 on developing a field investigation plan. (If necessary, the instructor may provide a brief review on working with maps.)

Each group will need to decide what to display on their map(s) and how to display it. The overarching goals are to display the sensory data they collected in the field, characterize the study area, and determine the environmental impact represented by their data. Characterization of the study area includes displaying relevant components of the systems that influence the movement of scents and/or sounds through the environment (for example, wind direction). The first step in the development process will be for each group to determine the purpose of their map(s). The purpose should be directly related to the guiding question for their research. Possible purposes include assessment of the impact of the scents and sounds on the local residents, tracing scents or sounds to their sources, and comparing and contrasting the sensory environments of two different study areas. The groups will also need to determine if one map will be sufficient and clear or if several maps highlighting different themes will be necessary. The groups will have 15–20 minutes to discuss the sensory data they collected and develop rough drafts of their map(s). The rough drafts should include notations indicating colors, symbols, or other features that will be developed on the final map.

Sensory map review and revision (20–25 min)

The rough drafts will be posted on the walls of the classroom for a 10–15 minute gallery walk to allow students to comment on the proposals of each group. Students should be instructed to provide feedback on how well they think the maps will communicate the intended message. At least one group member should be present to explain the concept, explain the topical focus, and answer questions.

After the gallery walk, the groups will meet to go over the comments and have an opportunity to query the class about any comments that are not clear. The groups will then prepare their final maps as part of the concluding summative assessment of this module.

The instructor will lead a very short guided discussion on the rough drafts of the maps, using the following discussion questions:

  • How is the information presented in these maps different from "scientific" data about pollutants (e.g. air and water quality)? How is it similar? How might these data be used together to address an environmental problem? Can you think of ways that the sensory data could help us better understand "scientific" data, and vice versa?
  • (If applicable:) How are the scent and sound data sets related?
  • As a whole, how does the map represent the auditory or olfactory experience of being in the location you visited? In other words, how well have you characterized the complex sensory environment you visited? Was that challenging? Why or why not?
  • Were you able to clearly display relevant components of the environmental systems that influence movement through the environment?
  • Your maps have clear boundaries, but we know that scents, sounds and pollutants do not respect arbitrary boundaries very well. What do you think happens to the phenomena you have measured outside of your mapping boundaries? What are the implications of bounding your data collection the way you have done so?

Reflection paper assignment (5 min)

The last five minutes of class the instructor will provide students with an assignment sheet for a graded reflection. (The assignment will be completed outside of class.) The map will be accompanied by a short reflection paper (1–3 pages) describing the authors' justification for data selection and map design, the relation of the mapped information to contaminants moving through the environment, and the implications for future investigations. Comments from the gallery walk should be used when preparing the short paper. Guidance and a grading rubric for the final map and paper are included here: Summative Assessment #3: Sensory Mapping Reflection & Rubric (Microsoft Word 174kB May16 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The map needs to be directly related to the guiding question and hypotheses.

A key difficulty for students developing maps is maintaining a scale. One of the most effective ways to ensure a uniform scale is to use a base map, and the easiest base maps for students to relate to are aerial images. Depending on the course, students may also consider drawing their base map.

Aerial imagery sources (links below):

  • Google Earth is the easiest to use and print and has the added benefit of allowing students to plot their data points directly on the aerial image.
  • MapQuest and Yahoo maps are the second best option; they each produce a nice base image, but the students cannot plot their data points.
  • The U.S. EJScreen site allows students to collect demographic and environmental information for an area. This is especially useful for doing additional research beyond the scope of this module.
  • The National Map Viewer produces a good base image but is more complicated to use.
  • Google Maps defaults to a map (instead of an aerial image) when printing.

The instructor should be familiar with the use of the source that is recommended to students.

Maps are an important means of visual communication. A specific description of what the final map should look like is not included in this material. The map should be judged based on how well it communicates the group's intended message. Student creativity should be encouraged.

The gallery walk is intended to provide feedback from a broad audience of viewers. It should be made very clear to students that maps produced for the gallery walk are rough drafts and that the final map should be of higher quality.

Groups may need to produce several maps to make their point clearly.

Recommended map types:

  • Impact of the scents and sounds on the local residents: This type of map is a good way to get students to explore the concepts of environmental impact. The map should highlight scents and/or sounds based on their social desirability and should display socioeconomic conditions present in the area. This type of study would typically have an unimpacted area with a similar use (i.e. single family residential) for comparison. Spatial demographic data is available from the US Census Bureau. This type of map can also be used to characterize locations on or near campus and the impacts on the student population.
  • Tracing scents or sounds to their sources: This type of map is similar to the type of map environmental investigators prepare when investigating environmental contamination. The map should highlight the relative strength (concentration) of the scents or sounds being investigated, environmental factors that would influence the migration and strength of the scents or sounds, and potential sources of the scents or sounds. This type of study would typically include a nearby area that is not impacted (preferably "up gradient" from the suspected source) for comparison.
  • Planning for further investigation: This type of map is similar to "Tracing scents or sounds to their sources" but uses scents and other indicators to identify areas that may have been impacted by contamination. The map would indicate the best locations to sample and types of samples to collect (air, soil, and/or water) based on the strength of the scents and geophysical conditions that would influence migration. Environmental sampling is not random, but is targeted based on the professional judgement of the scientist who must develop a holistic model of the area developed by making observations of interconnected environmental conditions.

The sensory data collected is not isolated; it is the result of a source's interaction with the social, biological, and geophysical systems surrounding it. The air temperature, wind direction and speed, topography, time of day, nearby land uses, vegetation, and many other factors impact the received sensory inputs. When making a map, the students will need to decide which information is relevant and needs to be included and what can be excluded without being misleading. Likewise, an environmental scientist developing a map needs to decide what to include and exclude and may choose to prepare a set of maps to highlight different types of information while presenting a comprehensive view of the subject area and its interacting systems.


Formative assessments should take place throughout the unit. The unit is designed to have students assess each others' work and make suggestions for improvement. The key formative assessment point is when groups participate in the gallery walk of rough draft maps.

While groups are working and sharing, the instructor should monitor the groups to ensure that student discussions are substantive. The development of the maps is intended to be student-driven; students should be prompted to consider how well the map(s) will work to convey the desired information clearly.

This unit is intended to be used as part of a broader module. The map(s) should be included as part of the final project submission in support of the collected data.

The summative assessments are the sensory map and the reflection paper are linked here:

References and Resources

Sources for aerial imagery:

Gallery Walk: Pedagogic Guidance on Gallery Walks

Map making (AKA Cartography):

  • What All Good Maps Should Have, from Huxley College of the Environment
  • Cartographic Communication, hosted by University of Colorado Boulder, from original material by Kenneth E. Foote and Shannon Crum, University of Texas at Austin (for this exercise, sections 1–4 are most helpful)

Pedagogic Resources from Pedagogies in Action Modules

On the Cutting Edge Activities Related to Google Earth:

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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 »