Astronomy is a very visual science. Who amongst us, while working in science outreach hasn’t experience first-hand the enthusiasm reflected in a child’s face when they see the amazing images that reach us from outer space? And it is easy to, with a single image, produce a sense of awe and enthusiasm for the mysteries of our cosmos. Whether is the simple glimpse of a sky full of stars or a more complex image captured by large telescopes, we must admit – at least a little bit, Astronomy has it easy when it comes to engaging audiences with powerful visual images. Now imagine that your audience is blind or visually impaired. You have to start thinking and designing all your approach to science outreach anew, and your universe just expanded a bit wider.
To hold “the sky in your hands”
During International Year of Astronomy 2009 in Spain, there was a very special project called “El Cielo en Tus Manos” (The Sky in Your Hands). This project, lead by Amelia Ortiz-Gil, from Astronomical Observatory of the University of Valencia (OAUV), aimed to take the predominantly visual experience of the planetarium and share it with visually impaired audiences.
Using a half-sphere with stars and constellations engraved in high relief, the user can access, through touch, to what is being projected on the dome. During the show, the audience is guided by two narrators: one that tells the tales of the night sky and the other that guides through the tactile half-sphere. More than a mere tactile experience in the planetarium, this is an inclusive experience, where groups of friends and family, visually impaired or not, can be together, in the same place, learning about astronomy and enjoying the beauty of the night sky.
Teaming up, OAUV and Astronomers Without Borders (AWB), together they produced a sustainable international program still running until today. Anyone that wants to implement the project can acquire all related materials for free. These include the complete soundtrack; digital file for the 3D printed half-spheres or a DIY half-sphere using low-cost materials. Customized support for anyone that wants to implement the show is also available.
To have “a touch of the Universe”
Another example of the great tactile resources for visually impaired children is the project “A Touch of the Universe”, a non-profit project supported by the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development. This project carefully developed and gathered a selection of tactile astronomy resources in a kit. Thirty sets of these selected materials were distributed among educators and teachers in socially and economically deprived regions around the world, areas that significantly lack inclusive educational materials.
This kit comprises a very balanced set of resources that allows educators to address many different topics in astronomy, such as the shape of constellations and relative distance and perspective. With a 3D printed model of the Moon, the participants can explore its dominant surface features such as maria, craters or mountains, the different moon phases and many more.
And although designed focusing on a visually impaired public, these materials can be successfully used by all. The booklet of suggested activities that accompanies the resources targets both blind children and their sighted peers and can be used by both in joint activities.
Meeting our celestial neighbours
Launched in 2013 by Núclio Interativo de Astronomia (NUCLIO) and Europlanet, “Meet our Neighbours!” is project dedicated to taking astronomy to visually impaired children in socially deprived areas, through the use of tactile astronomy hands-on, low-cost activities. This project presents ways to avoid the expensive tactile printing costs by producing a set of 13 tactile images of the main objects of the Solar System using daily basis materials. Promotes inclusion and interactive activities for groups of visually impaired children and their sighted peers by exploring, building and presenting the tactile images.
And Meet our Neighbours! is only one example of these activities: whether you want to address distances in the Solar System or between different stars in constellations; build a tactile DIY cardboard planetarium; explore through touch different types of galaxies or even explain different components in space probes, the network of tested low-cost resources is growing around the world, full of many creative enthusiasts.
Telescope observing sessions
Telescope observations remain a challenge when it comes to sharing the visual content of the celestial object being observed. Several activities are designed by exploring the telescope through touch: the educators first explain the path of light and its trajectory through the telescope. Then, they can complement the activity by using a tactile model of what is being observed.
Wanting to make “live” observing sessions is the next natural step for any educator. The process is relatively easy. By connecting the telescope to a webcam we can record the image of the objects being observed live onsite during a telescope observation. After using an image editing software, the images are ready to be printed on swelling paper (a special type of paper that allows the inked areas to swell when heated) and then run through a thermal printer. This allows visually impaired audiences that attended the event to be able to perceive the objects being observed in real time alongside the other participants.
Live online remote telescope observations
These projects aim to make it possible for both sighted and visually impaired audiences to take part in live online observing events together. An example of these projects for outreach events is “Stars for All“, a live online, remote observing event promoted by The Virtual Telescope Project in Italy and hosted by Dr. Gianluca Masi during Global Astronomy Month (AWB).
If you are a teacher, in classroom and want to access remotely to a large telescope, Faulkes Telescope has a program that offers the opportunity for students to remotely operate it and take their own pictures of the cosmos. Often visually impaired students are cast aside from these in class activities. So, by allowing for the real-time images to be printed off and converted into a tactile surface, the students with visual impairments around the world can experience the wonders of observing with large remote telescopes: live, together and alongside their classmates.
Global collaborative non-profit efforts – become part of a movement
These are the projects that are supported and carried by the individual efforts of many. In every project, every idea encountered the support of enthusiastic educators, outreach communicators, amateur, and professional astronomers willing to aid and partake in this adventure. And these are only a glimpse of a vast universe into which every one of us can contribute actively and creatively. All the projects are collaborative and non-profit. All materials and resources here mentioned are freely available to anyone that wishes to implement them. The information that light carries and that reaches us from every corner of our Universe is amazing and it’s everyone’s right to be able to access it and explore it in their own special way. It is our duty turn this into a reality in order to make cosmic light truly ours.
If you like to know more about these activities or simply want to share your experience, please feel free to send an email to email@example.com.
Lina Canas is currently based at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) in Tokyo, working for the International Astronomical Union Office for Astronomy Outreach as Assistant Outreach Coordinator. Through the years, she has worked and collaborated with different nonprofit organizations such as Astronomers without Borders (AWB), Europlant, Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) and GalileoMobile. With a background in Astronomy and Geophysics, for the past nine years she has dedicated efforts in astronomy education and outreach, primarily focusing on using astronomy to promote access and inclusion to a broad range of audiences.