UCR astronomers design astronomy workshops for the deaf

In a collaboration between UCR and the California School for the Deaf, Riverside (CSDR), a workshop known as “The Vibrating Universe: Astronomy for the Deaf” was created, led by UCR astronomers Gillian Wilson, Mario De Leo-Winkler and CSDR teachers Wendy Green, Lisa Chute, Elizabeth Henderson and Tammy Mitchell. The UCR astronomers have worked with CSDR representatives before to ensure American Sign Language (ASL) was available at astronomy events, but this is their first time developing an activity as hands-on as this workshop.

The researchers presented their workshop through the use of Powerpoint slides and a soundstage; a soundstage is a room designed to translate sounds into vibrations and lights so the deaf can experience them. To start off, CSDR students ranging from third to eighth grade were divided into groups based on their varying levels of disabilities and hearing. From there, the students laid on top of floorboards that produced the vibrations and followed the presentation with the help of interpreters.

“The main challenge was figuring out how do you do an activity for a population that’s deaf and so we had to think of creative ways to present astronomy,” stated UCR Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development and Physics professor Gillian Wilson.  

The presentation was focused on taking students on a voyage through space, beginning with blasting off in a rocket from earth, to orbiting around the planets and sun and eventually flying out of the galaxy all together. Deaf students were able to feel the different vibrations and see the lights that correlated with each event. “We did it over the course of three days, with different students coming in on each day and we tried to make the workshop better each time,” said Wilson.

After receiving feedback for their workshops, the astronomers and CSDR teachers worked together to compile and publish their results. From this trial run, they have evidence to believe that this method of teaching is effective for deaf students of varying hearing ability and ages. The resources they used and the outcomes of their study have been posted online in the Journal of Science Education and Technology as well as on the UCR astronomy website.

“What we want to do by publishing it is to inspire others to do either our workshop or some variation of an astronomy workshop, in fact any other science completely works as well,” said Wilson.

The “Vibrating Universe” was awarded funding through “The GOGREEN Survey: Caring about the Environment” National Science Foundation grant. Currently, this same team is working on developing another workshop called the “Smells of the Universe,” where they using scents to interact with deaf students.

“So now instead of sounds of the universe, what other senses can engage the deaf community: smells. So we took our next workshop and tested it out last November, we’ll make some tweaks and go back, but it was another very successful workshop and kids had a lot of fun with it,” commented Wilson.

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