The Franklin Institute's Resources for Science Learning x
Home (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)For Learners (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)For Educators (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)Leadership (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)Partnership (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)About Us (Main Navigation - Resources for Science Learning @ The Franklin Institute)

Minutes from ME

SMELLING .......


Smell seems to be the sense we take most for granted. There are no galleries displaying smells like paintings, no concertos written for noses, no special menus of smells created for grand occasions; yet this is the most direct and basic of our senses. It helps us keep safe by helping us choose good foods and avoid those that have gone bad, you need to have smelled a rotten egg only once to remember how awful it was, sour milk too.

Watch an animal when it checks a new place. Which sense does it use first? Yes, it samples the SMELLS to decide on safety or danger (or edibles). Think of fire danger - you will probably hear it and maybe see it, but I bet you'll SMELL it first.

A discussion of smells leads us to those smells we love, those we hate, those we don't mind, those that remind us of a certain occasion or place, .... the list is long. I wonder how it is that some of us love the smells that others hate. What makes that happen - scientists are investigating. Doctors are researching those things that spoil our sense of smell. Pollen allergies that make our noses hurt and swell up. Colds and 'flu which make our noses so stuffed up we can't smell anything at all!

We must always remember that it is NOT SAFE to sniff strongly when smelling anything unknown. Instead watch how a chemist, who uses this sense as a very important tool, smells a sample. She will wave something over the surface to waft just a small odor amount and then smell to recognize the chemical causing it.


The body organs for smelling are inside the nose. They are the two olfactory membranes under the bridge of our noses about as big as postage stamps. The rest of the nose is used for breathing in and filtering air headed for the lungs. The mucus inside our noses, the stuff that appears when you blow your nose, is used to dissolve the vapors breathed in so that the membranes can detect them. The membranes' detection messages go straight to the part of our brain that stores feelings and memory without any detours through the cerebral cortex (the main brain). We surely do need to know and remember immediately (if not sooner) that this smell is chocolate and we love it or that smell is burning trash and dangerous!



In a table with columns of LIKE, DISLIKE and DON'T CARE, list all the different smells you can think of (you may want to limit the entries since research says it could go to a total of 10,000 for the average person).

Think of sets of smells associated with different locations - cafeteria, ball game, beach, forest, swimming pool, horse barn, barbecue, fireworks display.

List the smells recalled by descriptive words such as "fruity" or "moldy".

Write a description of a smell without naming its source. This is quite a challenge and can produce hilarious results.


Make a series of Lift N'Smell patches using very small (1 cm. square) pieces of tissue dipped in various smelly samples then pressed under a set of computer labels between the backing and the label. Number each label and have student "smellers" note the odor detected against that number on their list. Provide a reference list of possibilities for smelling novices.


Odors used on each tissue piece could include: disinfectant, toothpaste, fruit flavors, liquid smoke, strong cheese, NOTHING, chocolate, witch hazel, perfume, liniment, vinegar, garlic powder, etc., etc.


I remember very clearly my favorite class trip from last year. The many different smells from that day make it so easy to remember as I read my journal story about it......

The car fumes as we cross the parking lot disappear when we reach the entrance gate and sweet, "flowery" smells take over. But these nice smells turn to something pretty bad at the top of the path as we turn the corner. Where is the person with the scooper when he is really needed? Let's move on fast! Try going inside a building! This building smells even worse and there's a lot of roaring going on, better try another.

In the next building there's a very, very sweet smell of honey put out to feed some tiny, beautiful feathered animals living there. Now we feel much better and ready to go outside again. This time we turn right to go along by the pond and notice another smell - something's fishy. Sure enough, just ahead lunch is being served to some swimming animals who live here, so we stop and watch. After watching that luncheon we check our watches and decide to find some seats for ourselves and soon the smells of peanut butter, jelly, cheese, etc. fill the air. We enjoy our short recess and then move on towards our school bus for the ride back. Is that banana we smell on the way out?

Clue: Philadelphia's was the first one in the USA. San Diego has a great one too.

Find more smelling information at these websites:
Seeing, Hearing and Smelling the World
Read about the smelling abilities of dogs, mosquitos and Emperor and Silkworm moths in AMAZING ANIMAL SENSES.

The "Minutes from ME" Archives

GO Back to inQuiry Almanack