The sound of science

Students join global project to explore the changing sounds of nature

Teacher and student placing sound recorder on a tree trunk

Students and teachers set up recording devices with microphones to capture sounds on campus.

Perkins students are taking part in a global research project by examining their surroundings in a scientific method well suited to their strengths: listening.

Secondary students have placed microphones around campus as part of a worldwide initiative to study how manmade noises impact natural sounds. The project, which supports an emerging scientific field called soundscape ecology, is a way for students to get excited about science that’s easily accessible to people with visual impairments, said teacher Jeff Migliozzi.

“Most of our students use their ears to hear a person describing something physical, where with this (project) they can go directly to the source,” he said. “This isn’t a field of science that’s adapted for us – it’s suited to us. That’s a big difference.”

The project began as a collaboration between Perkins and Purdue University, where Professor Bryan Pijanowski spearheads the soundscape ecology project. He’s studying how manmade sounds such as cars or electronics infringe on the sounds of animal inhabitants, requiring them to change their pitch or volume in order to communicate. Pijanowski came to Perkins in April to give students a lesson in collecting and analyzing sounds.  

In May, students took metal boxes equipped with recording devices and wired them to tree trunks about four feet off the ground. The microphones protruding from either side – they look like handles on the box – will capture sounds for the first 10 minutes of every hour over the next year. The students should be able to discern how the sounds change over time, and hear the balance between manmade versus natural sounds.

Student Kym examines a recording device with teacher Betsey Sennott.

Student Kym examines a recording device with teacher Betsey Sennott.

Perkins student Kym, 20, who has low vision, was excited about the project because it uses one of her favorite senses. “I love the sound of trees, the wind going through them,” she said. “If I’m having a bad day with my vision, I’m all about the hearing.” 

Once the sounds are collected, the results will be uploaded to the Purdue website for anyone to access. They will join sounds from the Costa Rican rainforest, the African jungle and the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, highlighting how the aural world is changing.

The project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant that supports new ways for students to study the ecology of sound. Over the next four years, Perkins students will continue to experiment with sound, and Migliozzi said he hopes to develop a middle school science curriculum that includes soundscape ecology.