Summative Evaluation of Global Soundscapes: Mission to Record the Earth, adapted for visually impaired students
Supported by the National Science Foundation, the Global Soundscapes! Big Data, Big Screens, Open Ears project employs a variety of informal learning experiences to present the physics of sound and the new science of soundscape ecology. The interdisciplinary science of soundscape ecology analyzes sounds over time in different ecosystems around the world. The major components of the Global Soundscapes project are an educator-led interactive giant-screen theater show, group activities, and websites. All components are designed with both sighted and visually impaired students in mind.
Multimedia Research, an independent evaluation firm, implemented a summative evaluation with visually impaired students from Perkins School for the Blind at the EcoTarium in Worcester, MA. Using real-time observations and a post-experience questionnaire, the evaluation assessed the influence on 10 visually impaired teenagers of a 45-minute interactive, sound-based, giant-screen theater experience followed by a one-hour “sound walk” activity. The general goals of the evaluation were to assess engagement, appeal and interest; knowledge of soundscapes; and potential future behavior related to soundscape ecology.
Key Findings of Engagement, Appeal and Interest
A majority (70%) of visually impaired students either liked the Global Soundscapes interactive theater show “a lot” or a “great deal.” Through the 45-minute show, the students were observed to be engaged with the audio sounds and audience interactivity, and about half were verbally responsive to the presenter’s questions. Students most liked hearing different sounds (60%), but some students noted discomfort with the lighting, sounds, or seats of the theater environment (40%).
A majority (70%) of participants also “liked” or “liked a great deal” their post-show sound walk activity. Most students (60%) liked listening to sounds of nature during the audio recording of the lower pond and during their walk by the upper pond; another 30% liked the periods of silence during which they listened for sounds.
Half or less of the visually impaired students felt that the theater show and sound walk experiences increased their interest “somewhat” or “a lot” in four different soundscape topics. Students reported that their experiences increased their interest “somewhat” or “a lot” in the importance of soundscape ecology (50%), in soundscape ecology (50%), in methods and tools of soundscape ecology (40%), and how to understand spectrograms (30%). Increased interest in the topics was significantly and highly correlated with appeal of the theater show but not with appeal of the sound walk activity.
Key Findings: Learning
A majority of visually impaired students felt that they either learned “a lot” or “some” from the Global Soundscapes interactive theater show (70%) and their sound walk activity (60%). Perceived learning ratings were not correlated with appeal ratings, but perceived learning from the sound walk was statistically correlated with increased interest in the topics of soundscape ecology and methods and tools of soundscape ecology.
From the theater show, students felt they learned about sounds in different places from different sources, learned the scientific categories of sounds, and learned about sound measurement. From the sound walk activity, students reported learning about the scientific categories of sounds and the sources of sounds around them.
After their experience, all of the students were able to cite correct examples of sounds in all three sound categories of anthrophony, biophony, and geophony. One-fifth of students could provide the scientists’ definition of soundscape as all sounds in a place.
In analyzing soundscapes, ecologists look for categories of sound, sound frequencies and amplitudes, changes over time, and differences by location. In analyzing their neighborhood soundscapes, 40% of students proposed analytical questions about changes, differences, or explanations about soundscape sounds; 30% asked about methodology of sound recording; and 30% were unable to answer this question successfully.
Students did not recall a main message of the theater show that collecting and studying soundscapes is important to help ecologists assess the health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. Only one student (10%) suggested that soundscapes helped one to learn about an environment. Almost one-third (30%) repeated the show message that soundscapes help you hear things that you cannot see, and 20% felt that soundscapes were important to experience sounds or nature.
Key Findings: Future Behavior
When asked how they might listen to the world in a new or different way after their experience at the EcoTarium, half of the students felt that they would listen more closely, listen by recording, or listen to new places; and the other half thought that they would not change how they listened to the world.
Students reported that their experiences made them feel “very” or “somewhat” likely to tell others what they learned about soundscapes (80%) and likely to record their own soundscapes (50%).
The ten students from Perkins School for the Blind presented a challenging audience for the two EcoTarium presenters of the interactive Global Soundscapes theater show and subsequent sound walk activity. The visiting students not only had visual impairments but possibly other issues limiting their functioning in the field trip setting. Nonetheless, findings about engagement, appeal, interest, learning and future behavior for the 10 Perkins teens did not differ much from the reactions of 33 sighted low-income minority 5th graders who participated in a similar Soundscape field trip to the EcoTarium one year earlier. Although we have a very small sample of visually impaired students from which to generalize, we can make a few observations and recommendations for future presentations to visually impaired audiences:
(a) Prior to their theater and sound walk experiences, alleviate some anxiety by explaining what to expect in terms of environments including the darkness of the theater, the potential loudness of sounds, and the uneveness of the outside walk; (b) Representing sounds via a visual spectrogram is a central component of the theater show. Consider providing staff and/or sighted guides with 3D printouts of the tuning fork sound for review during school or during the bus trip, so that visually impaired students can become familiar with what a spectrogram is and its main features prior to their theater experience; (c) Do not assume that visually impaired students have the same curriculum experiences and/or familiarity with the world as sighted students. For example, visually impaired students could not identify the rainforest by its sounds or identify a monkey sound; (d) Repeat and reemphasize the main project messages that a soundscape is all the sounds in a specific place and that soundscapes are important to help scientists understand the health and biodiversity of a place; (e) Consider that the comparison of time periods (in Costa Rica) and comparison of two locations (in Hawaii) may require playing the comparative soundscapes more than one time in order for visually impaired students to focus in on differences that are more obvious for the sighted students who can also compare visually displayed spectrograms.