Skip to main content

AAAS Volunteers Spark Interest in the Science Behind Our Five Senses

AAAS volunteers at the 5th USA Science & Engineering Festival lead young visitors in experiments exploring the science of the five senses.| Neil Orman/AAAS

More than 80 AAAS volunteers deployed jelly beans, Braille lettering and auditory illusions to creatively demonstrate the science of the five senses to thousands of curious participants at the 5th USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.

The festival and its accompanying activities drew an estimated 350,000 attendees between April 5-8 to watch 20 stage shows and take part in more than 3,000 activities, including touching a moon rock, creating an ocean-inspired craft, powering a lightbulb by pedaling a bicycle, testing out welding skills via virtual reality and learning how space shuttle toilet operates.

As a sponsor and exhibitor, AAAS’ involvement at the 2018 festival was multi-faceted. Twenty-eight AAAS members, staff and Science & Technology Policy Fellows took part in several Meet the Scientist sessions, during which young visitors were encouraged to interview the scientists and engineers. AAAS Program Director Bob Hirshon served as an emcee at the X-STEM Symposium, where speakers gave presentations specifically geared toward middle and high school students. AAAS also brought representatives from the STEM Volunteer Program, which connects teachers with scientists and engineers interested in volunteering on a regular basis in K-12 classrooms.

The Science of the Senses interactive exhibit was the centerpiece of AAAS’ participation. It challenged visitors to explore the science that drives sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

“In our exhibit area, we try to include memorable experiences at each station — things that make visitors young and old look at the world in a new way," says Hirshon. "We're not there to dispense information; we're there to inspire curiosity and wonder,” said Hirshon.

A constant stream of visitors flocked to an experiment exposing the hidden link between taste and smell. Leading the demonstration, AAAS Project Director Beth Ruedi handed out one red jelly bean to everyone gathered around the table. First, plug your nose, she instructed, then chew the jelly bean.

When Ruedi asked if anyone could identify the flavor, few could put a finger on it. “It’s sweet,” several children ventured. “It doesn’t have a taste,” another said.

Once Ruedi instructed everyone to unplug their noses, a chorus of correct answers rang out. The cherry flavor suddenly becomes recognizable when you are able to smell what you eat – the two senses are inextricably linked, Ruedi explained.

At the table exploring the sense of hearing, visitors were equipped with headphones to block out the din of the festival and tune in to a series of auditory illusions. Developed by Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, the illusions demonstrate how easily our ears can deceive us.

First, listeners heard the a series of notes that appears to get higher and higher in pitch without ever stopping, known as the Shepard tone. Next up was the phantom words illusion, in which a word is repeated over and over again but offset slightly so it overlaps. From this jumble of sounds emerge phantom words that many listeners begin to pick out – though not everyone hears the same thing. Finally, visitors listened intently to the Tritone Paradox, which consists of two different notes that some people hear as getting higher in pitch and others hear as getting lower.

The Tritone Paradox was the most popular auditory illusion, according to Jennifer Holshue, editorial content manager at AAAS’ EurekAlert! service. The experiment is interactive – participants put their thumbs up if they thought the notes got higher and thumbs down if they believed the notes got lower – and not everyone agreed, she said.

“Kids also like the phantom words, just because it sounds so weird,” Holshue added.

Other components of the exhibit included optical illusions (a drawing of an elephant with an indeterminate number of legs was a popular choice) and several activities centered on the sense of touch, including a small wooden box filled with toys.

Participants were prompted to find the match of a particular toy without looking, using only their fingers. Another activity challenged participants to uncover a hidden message by reading with their fingers. Visitors were given several wooden blocks affixed with raised Braille lettering and a Braille alphabet key to help them decode the words.

“Interacting with the students and their families, -- especially watching the students use their sense of touch to find the matching object or tackle Braille -- hearing about their experiences at the Festival, and sharing my love of science and engineering were definitely the highlights of my time volunteering,” said Sarah Rovito, assistant director of research policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “I am incredibly fortunate to have benefited from many different STEM programs and experiences growing up and the least I can do is to give back and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

In addition to learning about the science of the senses, visitors could also learn more about the diversity of careers in the science world at several Meet the Scientist sessions on April 7 and 8.

Stacey Baker, public engagement program associate at AAAS and a trained biologist, spoke with a teenager who wants to study biology about the many paths open to scientists and the other elements beyond your field of study – such as they type of work environment a candidate might be seeking – to keep in mind when selecting a career.

“I took a very winding path,” said Baker, who shared with the student her own history working in a zoo, in the veterinary world, as a researcher and now in science communication. “Now I’m in the perfect spot.”

Said Hirshon, “The best thing about this event to me is the diversity among the visitors. We saw every age, every ethnicity, every nationality — you name it. And everyone was excited and eager to learn."

Added Rebekah Corlew, AAAS project director, “We got to meet and talk to a girl with synesthesia: a neurological condition where the patient's perceptions do not align with the stimulus (they can hear colors, or taste sounds). She was just a visitor to the festival, but seeing our booth got her excited to talk to us about her sensations, and we were excited to learn from her. It was the best of what engagement can be.”

[Associated image credit: Neil Orman/AAAS]


Andrea Korte

Related Scientific Disciplines