FROM SENSES TO SENSORS, FOSTERING CHILDREN’S ENVIRONMENTAL LITERACY
In this paper, the authors present a research on the use of electronic sensors, as a complement of sensory analysis, to improve children’s environmental awareness and exploration. The context of this research is the SOS Abstract (Sensors and Senses to develop Abstract Thinking) project that studies how to support the development of children’s abstract thinking mediating the use of senses and sensors.
Children’s senses are their primary interface with the environment, and therefore senses should be considered a fundamental epistemic mediator that can be used anytime and anywhere in environmental education. Electronic senses can also be used anytime, anywhere, making it possible to sense the environment in an objective, quantitative and not expensive way. Consequently, senses and sensors are affordable tools that can be used in a complementary way to sense and make sense of the environment.
Nevertheless, making sense of the environment in environmental education requires children abstract thinking, namely to interpret and relate quantitative and qualitative environmental information. The research presented in this paper illustrates the potential of senses and sensors to develop seven years old children abstract thinking, while sensing the environment in experimental inquiry activities.
A case study was developed in a Portuguese elementary school with a class of seven years old children. The experimental activities were planned and mediated by the teacher/researcher (also an author of this paper) that was also responsible for the participant observation. Photos, audio recordings and the registers produced by children were also collected. Data were processed using content analysis, allowing to identify abstract thinking through the analysis of children’s epistemic practices, like observing, describing, interpreting, and creating multiple representations. It was also possible to study how sensorial information was used as a concrete basis to abstraction and how electronic sensors scaffold the transition from concrete to abstract thinking.
In this way, the developed research illustrates the roles that senses and sensors can play in developing fundamental knowledge, attitudes, and competences with seven years old children, such as: sensory and environmental awareness; acquirement, register and interpretation of environmental data; bridging of the gulf between concrete and abstract environmental information. Through teacher mediation, electronic sensors scaffold the abstract process of observing the unobservable, also informing and enhancing the use of senses by children.
This work addresses two central components of environmental literacy: abstract thinking and environmental sensing. Since senses are part of all of us and sensors are widely available today, the results of this research can widely contribute to enhance children’s environmental literacy.