Investigating the Senses

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SWBAT design a museum exhibit that explains how a specific sense/sense receptor functions.

Big Idea

Smell, hearing, taste and touch - student designed exhibits explain much.


10 minutes

The purpose of this lesson is for students to learn that our senses work because sense receptors become activated and send signals to the brain where they are processed into memory or action.

We learned in our Cyborg Eye lesson that the eye “sees” by sensing electromagnetic signals (light) and sending those signals to the brain for interpretation.  Electromagnetic sense receptors are just one type of sense receptor that we have.  We also have chemical receptors and mechanical receptors. Think of our other four senses and see if you can determine which senses make use of which receptors.

I list the senses on the board.  I have students work as tables to identify the sense receptors they think are responsible for each sense.  Smell and taste use chemical receptors while hearing and touch use mechanical receptors.

I do not explain how these senses work, as the goal of the lesson is for students to work in groups to gather this information on their own.


90 minutes

I explain to students that they are going to be working alone or in groups of two or three (of their choice) to research how one of these four senses work.  Collaboration is such a critical skill in the world today and the more students practice, the better they get.  Additionally, over time I really want students to recognize that what we can accomplish together surpasses what any one individual can do (usually).  However, I also know how challenging group work can be for introverted students and having just finished an intense collaborative project with Design a Cyborg Eye, I want students to be free to choose their "work conditions".

Before allowing students to begin researching, I find that it is helpful if the class comes up with some initial questions to wonder about each of the sense options.  I write each sense on the board and ask students to tell me some things they wonder about each of them.  Example questions are:


  • How do sounds reach the brain?
  • Why do some sounds have a low pitch, while others have a high pitch?
  • Why are animals such as dogs able to hear sounds that humans cannot?
  • When someone is "hard of hearing," what are some possible causes?


  • What is smell?
  • How does the nose detect smell?
  • Why do certain smells instantly evoke specific memories or feelings?
  • How are the senses of smell and taste related?
  • If you hold your nose while eating, how are tastes affected? Why?


  • How do taste buds work?
  • How does the tongue recognize different tastes?
  • Why do some people like some flavors while others don’t?
  • Do taste buds last your whole life?


  • How does your hand tell the difference between hot and cold surfaces?
  • Why are some areas of skin more sensitive than others?


By eighth grade, students have conducted research a number of times for a large variety of classes.  The students in my district have been using personal Chromebooks for a few years now.  Because of this I find that students do not need to be provided with specific websites, they typically find resources that are better than what I would provide, once they have some questions to investigate. 

I do discuss with them that they should use a variety of resources, including interactive/simulation websites, videos, images and print, to gain insight into how their sense of choice works.  As students are conducting research, I monitor to ensure they are using reliable websites. For example, YouTube (a typical starting point of student research) has a high number of videos created by other students that may or may not be accurate.

At the beginning of day two, after some of the research questions have been answered, I go over the Design a Museum Exhibit PowerPoint.  The goal of this is to help students begin to think of creative ways they can teach their information to children.  I like having children as the target audience for eighth grade projects because it forces the students to put concepts into their own words so they are easy to understand while still maintaining accuracy and it makes it more difficult for them to just cut and paste information.

With each slide I ask students to identify things they like or respond to about the exhibit image.  Students typically point out that exhibits are large, colorful, interactive, and look fun and engaging.  I remind students that because they are designing (drawing) the exhibit, and not actually building it, there are no limitations and they should be a creative as possible.  This activity challenges students' critical and creative thinking as they make decisions about what information to convey and how to do that in way that children will respond to and enjoy.

Some students will be worried about the drawing aspect of this activity.  I suggest that these students use pictures from the internet that they can trace into the exhibit area as needed, but I also remind them that while I am looking for effort and neatness, I am not assessing them on artistic ability.  If any students ask to create their exhibit on the computer, I allow that as well (I have had students in the past use Google SketchUp for just about every creative project I assigned). 


20 minutes

When all student designs are complete, I hang them around the room organized by sense.  Students conduct a "gallery walk" to learn about the other senses and see the ideas of their classmates.  As students view the projects, I have them take down some notes about how the other senses work.  When students finish the tour, I have them share the things that stood out to them about the other exhibits.  Even though I asked for drawings, some students just cannot help themselves from going beyond expectations and creating 3D models.  I never deter students from expressing themselves in ways that make the most sense to them.

Following this discussion, I point out how complex our brains are and that they contain over 100 billion neurons and other cells.  I then show this video Inside a Jumping Spider's Brain that states how intelligent these creatures are with a brain that is only 1 cell!  This video provides a bridge between this information processing unit and the next unit on biodiversity of spiders.