The year of 2017 has come to an end, but before the annual swing around the sun came to an end, we fortunately had the opportunity to bring together most of the teams in the UK working on bridging the gap between science and visually impaired people. Astronomy and public engagement was the main discussion, but there was enough room for everyone to present their approach on how to tackle the same challenge of accessible science. Everyone stayed fully engaged throughout the entire day, and there were been serious signs of something great beginning in the field.
It’s sad that it was only one day, but it was still one of the best conferences we’ve had. It was on the 14th of December 2017, and Daniel Hajas attended the event on Grapheel’s behalf hosted at the Royal Astronomical Society. It was the first of its kind, both in spirit and in the great number of projects working on public engagement of astronomy and science in general — specifically targeting visually impaired audiences.
The event, “Communicating Physics and Astronomy to a Visually Impaired Audience”, was organised and hosted by Sheila Kanani (Royal Astronomical Society) and Jen Gupta (Tactile Universe, University of Portsmouth). It involved a number of 15-20 minutes talks, demos, lighting pitches, and discussions on how to set a roadmap toward a union of similar initiatives. The atmosphere was outstandingly inspiring and informative. We learnt a lot from each others’ successes and failures: which tools are useful, which audiences can be reached, and more importantly, what future work is required to keep the momentum.
Throughout the morning, 7 different teams all had the opportunity to present their work. They were all from within the UK and they all shared the same objective: to engage visually impaired people in learning about our universe and to break out from an imagined bubble of isolation. After a quick lunch, we spent the early afternoon demoing our probes, passing the universe around, from hand to hand. As well as 3D printed graphs of quantum mechanical quantities, galaxy images, planets, and more, people also had a chance to try feeling a Hydrogen atom projected in mid-air using an array of ultrasound transducers that created the sensation of touch on the skin. The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting down — like King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table — and discuss how we could team up, build on each others’ strengths whilst improving our weaknesses, and provide support across the teams in the UK to reach out to more people. There were ideas of holding regular, annual one-day conferences similar to this event as well as forming a formal or informal consortium of some kind.
UK-based initiatives to address public engagement and access to science
With so many creative and unique ways that each team had designed to help blind and visually impaired students, there was only one thing we all had in common: we all have a shared vision of a future where we can support visually impaired people to engage with science. But who are we all? Here is a list of the attending speakers and their projects. If you wish to know more about them or participate in their future events, you can either get in touch with us and we will be more then happy to assist you in connecting you to the right people at the teams, or you can also get in touch directly on the channels we quote at the end of each project summary. On our blog, you can also find individual posts about each team in our “nanoTip” blog series.
RNIB Bookshare and an inspiring case of VI in STEM
RNIB Bookshare is the go-to place for a library of accessible books in the UK — and their manager, Stacy Rowe, is the go-to person if you need a bit of inspiration of why it’s worth doing STEM even when you have a visual impairment.
Touching Space – IOP Award Winning Outreach Bringing Space Science to Everyone.
Touching Space delivers a range of superb accessible outreach events for both young and old. Using materials flow-in from space, audio, 3D printed items, robotics, high visibility projections and meteorites from the Moon, from Mars, and from the asteroid belt.
Tactile Collider is an initiative bringing the latest in accelerator physics research to blind and visually impaired children and adults (plus teachers and carers) around the UK using a model accelerator and sounds.
g-Astronomy: The Universe with all your senses.
Astrophysicist and science communicator Dr Roberto Trotta has joined efforts with experimental gastronomy chef Jozef Youssef and his team at Kitchen Theory to develop an interactive culinary experience that translates questions of cosmology and astronomy in dishes designed to embody in a metaphorical (but scientifically accurate) way the core physical characteristics of dark matter, black holes and the Big Bang.
The Tactile Universe: Engaging the vision impaired community with accessible astrophysics research.
The Tactile Universe is an on-going public engagement project from the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, supported by the South East Physics Network, that is creating accessible activities and resources to enable members of the vision impaired community to engage with current research topics within astrophysics and cosmology.
3D Printing for Inclusivity
Ted Snowdon, a Masters student at the University of York guided a discussion on how the physics department, including Emily Brunsden, is exploring using 3D printing and similar technologies to produce teaching resources for the benefit of VI students and with additional use as outreach tools.
Get in touch to learn from their experiences.
Museum in a box
The presentation by George Oates, co-founder of Museum in a Box, introduced the story and value proposition behind Museum in a Box, a start-up company turning museum exhibits into a multi-sensory, living room experience. They showcased how the exhibition is turned into an interactive exploration using technology such as NFC and digital fabrication.
Cosmic sculpture – A 3D printed model of planets and the Cosmic Microwave background
Dr Dave Clements told us about his work with the Cosmic Sculpture: a truly 3D form of CMB radiation — and the birth of our Universe — that can be held in the hand and felt rather than viewed.
The way forward
Obviously, we didn’t want to miss the party, so Daniel Hajas gave a presentation on behalf of Grapheel about “Beyond policy: Unifying research and social enterprise at Grapheel”. Clearly, 3D printing technology contributes enormously towards the affordability and accessibility of public engagement activities designed for the visually impaired community. Every team is approaching the challenge in their own way. Some work on reaching out to the public and getting them interested, some work on academic research of developing inclusive user experiences of science instruction, and some take the element of enterprise. However, what's common in all efforts, we all want to see impact in the short term.
It's good to finally get to know and appreciate what the individual groups are up for. Daniel pitched for collaborative work, let it be a formally established consortium of outreach officers, academics, students and social enterprises, or an informal movement of enthusiastic activists.
Read more about the Grapheel approach in our individual post on delivering the talk.>>
Thanks for the RAS and the Tactile Universe team organising this event, and to all speakers who took the time to present their work. We feel such an event was long needed and we are looking forward to either attending or hosting the second round. The teams are showcasing unprecedented achievements in public engagement in context of astronomy and STEM for the visually impaired community. In an organised collaboration, with synchronised activities around the country alongside securing further funding, we can reach to the stars — and touch them.