Dr. Erica Walker, life led to her calling. While working from home as an artist, noisy neighbors interrupted and upended the creative process, causing her to investigate the effects of noise. As it turned out, there was much more to studying sound and noise than uproarious neighbors. “I started doing all kinds of research, and then I just realized that there were a lot of people suffering from noise exposure from a variety of sources and that this was a really interesting path to explore,” said Dr. Walker.
The RGSS Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and founder of the Community Noise Lab, Dr. Walker studies noise in urban and rural settings. Both have industry and commercial areas and major transportation networks that cause noise but differ in other ways. She said, “In urban environments, people hear more horns, sirens, and people. In rural environments, people hear these things too, but also agriculture equipment, trains, and animals. Crickets and frogs are extremely loud.”
Dr. Walker knew that her work in the academic field of STEM research was important, but she wanted to do more than publish papers. She wanted to impact change. “I decided that I was going to develop a mechanism where I could work directly with communities to address their issues. That’s when I erected Community Noise Lab as a space where I could focus on the science of sound and understand the humanness of noise perception,” said Dr. Walker. “I could work with communities on their specific noise issues and support them with data collection, community surveying, citizen science activities and work on a common goal.”
What happens when sound becomes noise
“In the process of being in the communities and measuring sounds, people would come up and ask questions. I realized that there was sound, and there was noise,” she said. That spurred an interest in talking with people about the differences between noise and sound.
The point when sound becomes noise happens when that sound is unwanted. Noise isn’t just an annoyance. It can lead to profound health implications, such as sleep loss, anxiety, depression, and mood disruption. If noise is loud enough, it can affect hearing. There’s also a connection between stress and noise. “Stress response sets off a flight or fight response from noises. Your body is preparing you to fight or escape the situation. When your body does that, it releases stress hormones, increases blood pressure, and you’re sweating because you're getting ready to do something. Over a period of time, if you consistently stimulate that stress response, it leads to risk factors,” said Dr. Walker. These can manifest into serious cardiovascular-related disorders like hypertension, heart attacks, or strokes.
Creating a sound simulation
ExploreLearning partnered with Dr. Walker for a new STEM Case called Sound Off, Please! Designing Solutions to Reduce Noise Pollution. As a scientist behind the GizmosSTEM Cases, she was excited about this module. “Working in my home state of Mississippi, I was fully prepared to do noise and air pollution work there, but people really wanted us to work on water quality. Even if it's not directly related to noise, if it is an environmental issue, we will address it, especially if tied directly or indirectly back to noise. In my experiences, noise problems rarely happen in a vacuum,” she said. “In working with communities, you realize that not everyone's level of understanding is the same. We all come from different walks of life and may not be interested in noise. For me, it was very important to add educational activities or tools in Community Noise Lab to ensure we could reach a wide audience.” Working on the STEM Case combined her expertise with a learning opportunity.
Dr. Walker brought her unique perspective and research methods regarding sound and noise to ExploreLearning as a
scientist behind the Sound Off, Please! STEM Case. When she joined the project, Dr. Walker wanted the experience to be authentic for students.
“I made sure that it aligned with what I know happens when you’re on the ground while making sure students experienced something as realistic as possible and they saw people who reflected who they are.”
Sound Off, Please! and other newly released STEM Cases include a new feature allowing educators to view and sort the heatmap by “practices” in addition to skills. These practices include Asking Questions, Defining Problems, Using Models, Planning Investigations, Analyzing & Interpreting, Mathematical Thinking, Constructing Explanations, Designing Solutions, Arguing Evidence, and Communicating Information and Core Ideas.
Teachers can toggle between skills and practices on the heatmap to sort and organize student answers, helping them identify where students need help, practice, or clarification in greater detail.
Dr. Walker said, “I feel like the next hurdle we’ll have to overcome is educating people.” She hopes to create future leaders who can solve problems, especially those related to sound, through her participation in the development of the STEM Case.
In the words of Dr. Walker, “How beautiful is it that young children are exposed to sound in such a creative way that when they get to be older and have loud upstairs neighbors, they’ll be able to understand and problem solve through the process?”