Learning to Look

Master’s of Public Health students get an eye-opening lesson thanks to an urban scavenger hunt

student stands in front of smokestacks in Boston

Tufts students, faculty and staff navigate the health sciences campus in Chinatown every day—some of us for years. But how much of our environment do we really notice as we stride up and down Kneeland Street or Harrison Avenue?

On a cold spring afternoon, 23 students in the master’s of public health (MPH) program put themselves to the test, taking part in a scavenger hunt for their class in environmental and occupational health.

Divided into four teams, the students had to search within a half-mile radius of the medical school for four specific sites pictured in photographs handed out in class: a construction site in the middle of a neighborhood, a busy intersection, a basketball court and school near the highway and a pair of smokestacks. They also had to identify some of the city’s noisiest, smelliest and least pleasant locations, as well as some peaceful, pleasant recreation areas. The goal was to get students to slow down and be present in their own surroundings in ways modern life rarely affords us, says Christine Rioux, who teaches the class.

“Whether students go on to work in clinical settings, field settings or any type of workplace where they think about health and safety, observational skills are essential,” says Rioux, a research assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine who worked in the environmental field for 20 years before coming to Tufts. “It takes practice to hone one’s skills of observation. Environmental scientists and ecologists do this all the time. I want to give the students some time to slow down and really look at the environment they pass through every day, to see if they observe something new, or something old in a new way.”

MPH students puzzle out their next scavenger hunt target. From left: Abdulrahman Alfawzan, Claire Frederick, Helga Zaire, Hannah Siebens, Daniel Mordarski and Teddy Klug.  Photo: Kelvin MaMPH students puzzle out their next scavenger hunt target. From left: Abdulrahman Alfawzan, Claire Frederick, Helga Zaire, Hannah Siebens, Daniel Mordarski and Teddy Klug. Photo: Kelvin Ma
Searching for the four sites pictured in the photos, students each recognized one thing right away—they hadn’t been observing much at all.

“I’ve lived in Boston for three years, and I only realize now how little I knew about the city,” said Alvin Mathew. “It’s sort of embarrassing.”

Released from the confines of the classroom, the students applied the public and occupational health principles they are learning to analyze their own urban ecosystem.

For example, at the Chinatown T stop in Downtown Crossing—one of the mystery sites in the photos—students had to consider the hazards posed to pedestrians navigating the busy intersection. They observed the crush of huge trucks and speeding bicycles competing for space on narrow city streets. They recognized the painted crosswalk and the chirping sound made when the walk light flashes as efforts to mitigate those hazards. But the students, especially those not native to Massachusetts, noted that those aids don’t work when neither drivers nor pedestrians obey traffic rules. And those bad habits spread quickly, it would seem.

“I ignore the walk light every day,” confessed Zhuxuan Fu. “It reminded me this is a hazard for myself.”

“I’m also a contributor to the hazard,” added Zhesi Lian, who drives through Downtown Crossing almost every day. “But at least I drive a Prius.”

The exercise, which also asked teams to find and record a noisy spot as well as a quiet one within the half-mile radius, gave Lian a chance to notice something else about the bustling intersection. “That’s a place I walk through maybe five or six times a week, but I never realized how noisy it is until I stopped there and began to record [the sounds].”

Other teams focused on the din created by the Green Line trains that screech around the bend at the Boylston Street station—“It definitely needs some WD-40,” said one student. Others pointed to trucks and buses roaring up Kneeland or Washington streets and a number of construction sites as among the loudest places. For peace and quiet, they sought out deserted blocks of Harrison Avenue away from Kneeland Street, or a bench in the middle of Boston Common.

Cigarette smoke, bus fumes, whatever it is that billows up through the sewer grates, the scavenger hunters were keenly aware of these smells like never before. Even Chinatown’s best aromas—the simmering, porky, saucy ones—seem extra bothersome when you stop to notice them, the students reported.

“I was aware of all the smells and sounds in a way I haven’t been before. It sort of felt like what a dog might feel like, only having those two primary senses to engage with,” said C. Benjamin Brooks.

Once they’d taken stock of the half-mile area, the students returned to the classroom and mapped their photos, notes and recordings using an open-source mapping tool called Zeemaps. The following week they presented their maps and reflected on the impact of the urban ecosystem on those who live and work there—including the students themselves. Jasmine Bland, who is from Boston and knows it like the back of her hand, said the exercise reminded her that traffic and noise and crowds actually are hazards, not just annoyances. Kathy Lee, a veterinary/MPH student who is from Los Angeles, agreed.

“L.A. is also pretty crowded and polluted, and I also didn’t think of it as a hazard,” said Lee. “You just think of it as part of living in the city, but it does affect your health.”

Rioux, who came up with the idea of the scavenger hunt with adjunct instructor Jamie Tessler, says she hopes the experience will be transformative for some students, allowing them to see their work with a more mindful perspective. Unlike a typical scavenger hunt where speed is of the essence, she likens her class's scavenger hunt to a yoga session. “You don’t want to rush through it,” she says. “The winners stay outside the longest.”

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.

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