SENSE is one of 10 projects receiving funding to find digital solutions to pressing sustainability issues through the EPSRC Sustainable Digital Society call in 2021. It is a collaboration between the Open University, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and Learning through Landscapes.

Why the outdoors?

There is a critical link between low educational attainment and reduced access to nature and the outdoors for children living in poverty.

The environmental challenges of the day mean it’s never been more important to engage children with nature. Yet, many in the UK grow up with little or no access to the natural world.

We seek to develop technologies that foster greater interest in and appreciation of nature and the outdoors.

Why school grounds?

We emphasise school grounds as spaces that can be developed through wildlife-friendly gardening practices as equitable spaces for encounters with nature for all pupils, and develop a citizen science project to observe nature in such spaces. 

We seek to amplify the capacity of school pupils, from diverse backgrounds, to influence and participate in scientific inquiry and conservation action.

Why touch?

The sense of touch (or haptics) is the first we develop in the womb, and is central to how we explore and make sense of the world. Understanding qualitative perceptions such as scale, density, texture and pattern is core to developing conceptual thinking across math, science and art.

Our research will embed sustainability and art-based methods into science teaching, and thus reinforce and sustain interest in the natural world.

Why haptic interfaces?

Our project develops technologies that encourage pupils to touch and feel, in order to provoke different scientific questions and inquiries and to help connect with nature. Why is a bumblebee so much hairier than a wasp? Why do oak trees have a rougher bark than beech?

The key aim is to enhance, rather than distract from or replace, experiences of and curiosity about nature. We expect the touch interfaces we develop to be useful for:

  1. drawing attention to nature, e.g. a child may have access to real trees but not be minded to touch them or question why they have different barks;
  2. making the untouchable tactile, e.g. through touching images of a badger;
  3. playing with scale, e.g. feeling images at microscopic (e.g. leaf veins) or macroscopic resolutions, or comparing textures of leaves over seasons; and
  4. continuing explorations of nature even when indoors, to sustain interest. 

The haptic adaptor be fitted to pre-existing smart phones, tablets or laptops. This will help ensure the sustainability of the project and reduce waste. The adaptors work by vibrating the surface at ultrasound frequencies to give the sensation of texture, for example feathers, fur or tree bark, when used alongside visual and auditory cues.