The science of sound

Perkins students learn about soundscape ecology from Purdue researchers

A student and a teacher, both wearing headphones, hold a microphone with a fluffy cover.

Secondary Program student Hope and Purdue graduate student MaryAm Ghadiri use a microphone with a windscreen (to block out extraneous sounds) as they record around campus.

July 11, 2017

Perkins School for the Blind’s Watertown campus is idyllic, with its tree-lined walkways, numerous bird species and historic buildings. Seems like the perfect place to capture some natural sounds, right?

Not exactly. Last week at a science camp run by Purdue University graduate student MaryAm Ghadiri, Secondary Program students learned that air conditioning units, street traffic, planes flying overhead and even Fourth of July fireworks dominate Perkins’ soundscapes.

 “I used to think of campus as a peaceful place but it’s not as quiet as I thought,” said Secondary Program teacher Jeff Migliozzi, who has worked with Ghadiri and her adviser Bryan Pijanowski since they started the camp at Perkins four years ago.

The four-day camp introduced students to the importance of the natural ecosystem and scientific processes through soundscape ecology. It’s funded by the National Science Foundation through the Center for Global Soundscapes at Purdue.

“Soundscape ecology is an emerging field in science that looks at the environment through the lens of sound,” said Ghadiri. “Each ecosystem, according to the animals, the weather and climate has its own soundscape: the combination of all sounds. Because of urbanization and modernization there’s all this human-made sound being added to every community. We’re focusing on the dynamics of these sounds and how sounds are changing.”

Migliozzi said it’s an ideal field for students who are visually impaired to pursue. “It’s not a science field adapted for the blind – it’s a science field suited for the blind,” he said. “That’s what makes this very exciting.”

 During the camp, students discussed their experiences with sound, listened to soundscapes from all over the world and felt tactile spectrographs of sound waves. They also got hands-on experience around campus, finding locations to place the Song Meter, a small green box with two microphones that can be programmed to record ambient sounds.

One afternoon, the students did a sound scavenger hunt, recording snippets of people talking, laughing and walking with canes; natural sounds like birds chirping or water running; and man-made sounds from cars or appliances.  

“I like learning how the world’s sounds are created,” said Secondary Program student Zach, enrolled in the camp for the second year. He helped other students learn how to use the recording devices. “Getting the chance to try to record our own data, then getting that data back. It’s really interesting.”

That’s thrilling for Ghadiri, who’s run the camp at schools with sighted children and found it more difficult to engage those students in listening to the sounds around them. Perkins students are incredibly perceptive, she said, and she hopes her efforts have inspired them.

“I want them to feel that they can be scientists,” she said. “If I can make even one student interested, I’m happy.”

A group of students and a teacher, all wearing headphones, smile as they're listening.