Efforts to make both formal and informal education more inclusive have mounted as new technology makes innovative resources, tools, and outreach strategies possible across academic fields. Despite significant advances, however, one demographic that is still frequently overlooked in informal STEM educational outreach activities is the deaf community. In an attempt to remedy this problem, astronomers at the University of California, Riverside and teachers at the California School of the Deaf, Riverside worked together to design and test the effectiveness of an experience for deaf children to learn about astronomy.

The researchers designed a virtual cosmic voyage for 83 elementary and middle school deaf participants in a multi-sensory sound lab. As students traveled in a rocket to the sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and to stars beyond our galaxy, different vibration frequencies were used to help students distinguish between different cosmic phenomena. Storytelling, video, and images accompanied the vibrations, and a telescope viewing activity was also incorporated.

The researchers first created and ran an iteration of the workshop to evaluate how students reacted to the experience. Students attended the workshop and completed questionnaires to indicate which vibrations were enjoyed and effective in communicating concepts. Several weeks later, after the researchers incorporated the participant input from the first workshop, a second workshop was conducted for the same students. In this workshop, student reactions, engagement levels, learning, and enjoyment were also recorded.

During the first workshop, the researchers found there were several astronomy concepts that needed clarification and some vibrations that the students found scary. For the second workshop, many of the high-frequency sounds were changed to lower frequencies, which proved much more effective and enjoyable for students, concepts were clarified, and students were given more context and eased into the experience so that there was less uncertainty and confusion.

After the second workshop, researchers found that the vast majority of participants both enjoyed and learned astronomical concepts during the experience, demonstrating the potential of sound labs and presentations like these to engage the deaf community in STEM learning more effectively. The researchers and educators involved in this experiment hope that by increasing opportunities for exciting, inclusive astronomy experiences, they’ll entice more students to pursue higher education in natural sciences.

De Leo-Winkler, M. A., Wilson, G., Green., W., Chute, L., Henderson, E., & Mitchell, T. (2019). The vibrating universe: Astronomy for the deaf. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 1-9.

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