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Mapping spatial practices and social distancing in smart schools: Sensory and digital ethnographic methods

Project funded by the Transformative Methods Call 2021-2023

UK Economic and Social Research Council 

Project team:

Elizabeth de Freitas (PI) & Laura Trafi-Prats (coI) Manchester Metropolitan University

Nils Jaeger (coI) University of Nottingham & Albena Yaneva (coI) University of Manchester

This project investigates eco-sensory experiences of school buildings, by (1) forging an interdisciplinary team from Education, Architecture, and Design who (2) work collaboratively with young people, school staff, and industry partners (3) using sensory and digital ethnographic methods and mapping software to (4) produce new research methods for documenting the lived experience of school buildings. Our methodological objectives are to generate dynamic mapping methods that effectively represent the newly complex sensory-affective spatial practices in post-pandemic schools, whilst increasing young people’s understanding of smart architecture and the ethical issues associated with passive sensor data.


This project innovates visualization methods through patching mapping software with new sensory/environmental data and art/design interventions, and demonstrates how learning environments facilitate different kinds of agency and participation. Our digital maps are animated and use mixed media and can function as data-bases for other researchers. Research practices help us study buildings as mutable entities, transforming over time through affect and intervention, tracking how buildings respond to the new challenges of social distancing under post-pandemic conditions.


With its interdisciplinary focus on the built environment, this project has methodological impact across the social sciences and various public sectors. The research team collaborates with lead architect Michael Cambden from BDP architecture, a firm known for its exceptional school builds, and consults with design practitioner Ling Tan at Umbrellium, whose work on public pedagogy and digital citizen science supports the development of innovative ethnographic methods. A project advisory panel includes experts on learning environments from both local schools and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (LEEP – OECD). Project outcomes include open access events and exhibitions, paper publications, and more. For further information about the project please contact the PI at

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