08Sep2019

How Astronomy Is Being Made More Accessible

Astronomy has the potential to capture the imagination and inspire people of all ages. Because of this, there is huge potential to involve astronomy in school and higher education, which could help to spark an interest in a career in STEM subjects.

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Given that subjects such as Maths, Physics and Astronomy have always been considered as highly visual fields, this has had the unfortunate effect of limiting the accessibility of these subjects to those with sight. However, it is important that astronomy be made accessible to everyone, and this article will look at ways in which astronomy is being made more accessibility friendly.

Disability need not be a barrier to a career in Astronomy

Having a disability shouldn’t be a reason to prevent anyone from participating actively in astronomy. You only need look at Stephen Hawking to be reminded of how disability need not and should not interfere with someone’s dreams and ambitions.

There are several notable astronomical contributions that have been made by those with disabilities throughout the ages, such as John Goodricke, a deaf-mute who in 1973 for his work on variable starts was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society of England. And Edwin Frost who was the director of the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin and editor of The Astrophysical Journal until 1932, despite turning blind 11 years earlier. These examples go to show that disabilities really need not affect a career in astronomy.

The development of tactile educational resources

In 2014 a project called ‘A Touch of the Universe’ developed by the University of Valencia Spain was designed with the intention of brining astronomy to the visually impaired. The team developed an innovative kit of tactile educational resources on concepts of the moon designed to educate all ages. This project was sponsored by the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) who have also been involved in teaching astronomy to the visually impaired, as well as developing new ways of summarising enormous astronomical data sets into forms such as audio that are more easily interpretable and accessible to the visually impaired.

AstroSense Project

In April 2014 the OAD also established AstroSense, which is a project aimed at being accessible to anyone at all levels that is interested in space and astronomy. Similar to the Touch of the Universe project, this project has developed several tactile astronomy learning resources as well as 3D prints of astronomical objects. This project is continuing to look at ways in which it is possible to crunch large amounts of astronomical data in other forms that don’t rely on sight.

Sonication methods

Researchers have been developing ‘sonication’ methods that allow you to ‘listen’ to the stars. Sound offers a unique way to study events embedded into astronomy data that is otherwise visually ambiguous. This involves the use of instruments such as the drums and harpsichord to convey data such as radio waves and x-rays for example. Using sonication to convey astronomical data can help professionals who develop blindness later in life, such as in the example earlier of Edwin Frost who already have visual expertise in their field, therefore allowing them to remain in their jobs. Technological accommodations such as this are extremely important when it comes to accessibility.

*Article supplied by our regular correspondent ‘Sally – sally@diamondmail.net

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