What happens when students in a flipped classroom are teachers? Attendees at the 2022 MENA-SEA Teacher Program found out at Rite Smells: Scents from Around the World, a nose-forward talk on using the sense of smell to support learning in the classroom. This was the second year Michelle Krell Kydd, a renowned flavor and fragrance expert, designed a special program for the teacher cohort at a MENA-SEA Teacher program.

The sense of smell has a lot to offer in educational settings across age groups, and is especially effective in K-12 and higher education. Kydd explains:

“If you’ve ever attended a tasting event you’ve probably noticed how people bond over the shared experience of eating. The same is true of shared smelling experiences in gardens, nature trails, fragrance counters, and home kitchens (flavor is the intersection of smell and taste). When a person is asked to describe what they smell or taste they immediately lean into storytelling informed by personal flavor and fragrance experience. Imagine that in a classroom.

Smells experienced in the context of a lesson create a connection with the subject matter and bring it to life. Smelling stimulates active versus passive learning, which means there’s a better chance that students will retain the contents of a lesson by way of contextual smells. This was reinforced when I was taught how to evaluate scents and flavors professionally.

There’s also an increased probability of discovery as scent isn’t positioned as a curiosity object. An additional benefit also exists. Students can learn to conquer innate sensory bias towards a smell or flavor (“I like this”, “I don’t like that”, etcetera) and evaluate the character of a thing.”

Kydd adds a colorful anecdote. “I recently connected with my junior high school science teacher. Her name is Melanie Papkov. I wanted to thank her for a tasting experience that made me consider how I interacted with novel sensory objects.

Mrs. Papkov gave out samples of Gjetost cheese in our seventh grade science class. Gjetost is a Norwegian goat’s milk cheese. She chose the cheese because she liked it and thought we would too as it's sweet, creamy and has a gentle salty tang. Some of my classmates couldn’t get past the tan color (it’s caramelized) and goatyness, but many of the kids in our classroom graduated from American cheese that day. They learned that smell isn’t always indicative of flavor and that trying something new can be rewarding even if it’s not something that’s culturally familiar.”

Fast forward to the 2022 MENA-SEA Teacher Program, where the classroom was flipped and Kydd was the teacher. The MENA-SEA teacher cohort spent an academic year focused on classroom strategies for teaching about religious and cultural diversity for the purpose of developing curricular components and units. The Rite Smells scent flight included 12 exalted scents from around the world to stimulate senses and possibilities in classroom settings.

The scent flight included: Kyphi (tincture of an Egyptian incense), Frankincense resin from Oman, Copal Blanco resin from Mexico, Damascus Rose absolute from the Middle East/Turkey, Ceylon Cinnamon oil from Sri Lanka (Indonesia), Patchouli oil and leaves from India (South Asia), Breu Claro resin from the Amazon, Tian Op (tincture of a Thai candle used to flavor food via perfumed smoke), Palo Santo sticks from Peru, Hawaij for Coffee (a spice blend), and Koobah Baharat (a rose spice blend).

Kydd was keen on including incense resins at Rite Smells, the second event of its kind in the history of the MENA-SEA Teacher program. “The inclusion of raw materials was part of my professional sensory evaluation training and I wanted teachers to have a sensorial experience they could hold in their hands, as this resonates with science, geography, climate, history and other subjects. When you hold a piece of green frankincense resin in your hands you’re seeing, smelling and touching the terroir of Oman. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget.”

The Rite Smells scent flight resonated for teachers across subjects. A history teacher at Rite Smells had this to offer in an anonymized assessment taken on the day of the program:

“I really loved the smell flight. As a history teacher I think that it would be great to do something like this with my kids and have them associate those smells to different regions of the world. I have never had an experience in the classroom where smelling was a component and honestly up until now I had never thought about it. But now I do think that it would be a lovely experience. I think connecting the smells back to their origins and leading that into talking about how the world is interconnected would be great. It [the inclusion of the sense of smell] helped create a sense of community; it made the content more relatable.”

—Respondent number nine in the 2022 Rite Smells Assessment via Google Forms.

Some scent materials, like Breu Claro, remind us to be humble no matter how “educated” we think we are—and that’s one of the reasons Breu resin was chosen for Rite Smells. “Indigenous use of Breu Claro (Protium heptaphyllum) inspires reflection on what happens when generational knowledge of plants, derived from reading a landscape for medicine, results in evidence that precedes proof via scientific research,” says Kydd.

“Current research focuses on the analgesic properties of α-amyrin and β-amyrin in Breu Claro resin. Indigenous cultures may not know the names of active molecules that address specific health problems, but the curanderas and the people who come to them for healing know it works. There’s so much more to learn when it comes to aromatic plants and resins. Who knows what scientists will discover in 2023. Maybe I’ll have something to share with teachers next year.”

Kydd is consulting with two teachers from the 2022 MENA-SEA Teachers program so they can apply what they learned at Rite Smells: Scents from Around the World in their classrooms.  

Gabrielle Popp teaches young children who are blind and visually impaired, and is extremely interested in using multisensory experiences within the classroom as a means of access and deeper learning (she’s making tinctures and purchased an incense heater based on what she learned at Rite Smells). Tameka Medley is doing research on the history of mint in the state of Michigan as she develops American history lessons for her students.

“Sometimes the thing a teacher can take advantage of is right in front of their nose,” says Kydd. “I enjoy being a catalyst for teachers who want to teach in meaningful ways and learn along the way. The positive impact of a teacher on a child’s life is priceless. I remember this every time I buy Gjetost cheese.”


To learn more about the Center for Middle East and North African Studies (MENA) at the University of Michigan visit: https://ii.umich.edu/cmenas

Michelle Krell Kydd is a trained “nose” in flavor and fragrance evaluation. She creates Smell & Tell and Taste & Tell programming for the Ann Arbor District Library, the University of Michigan and clients in the private sector. Michelle received a finalist award from the President of the University of Michigan at the 2016 Staff Innovation Awards, in recognition of unique presentations incorporating the sense of smell. Kydd, a native New Yorker, received flavor and fragrance evaluation training at Givaudan and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She’s the editor of Glass Petal Smoke, an award-winning blog that explores the world of flavors and fragrances. You can follow her lively and educational Twitter feed at: https://twitter.com/glasspetalsmoke

Darin Stockdill followed Rite Smells with “Coffee, Tea or Chocolate: Our Favorite Hot Drinks and the History of the World“ in support of practical applications of smell, taste and flavor in lesson plans. Stockdill is the Instructional and Program Design Coordinator for Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research (CEDAR) at the University of Michigan School of Education. He and Kydd offered complementary presentations at the launch of Rite Smells in 2021.

Rite Smells was funded by Title VI grants from the US Department of Education awarded to: Center for South Asian Studies (SAS), Center for Southeast Asian Studies (SEAS), Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies (CMENAS), and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at the University of Michigan.