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Physicists take their science to the visually impaired

11 October 2017

Ben Jeffries, Dr Chris Edmonds, Dr Rob Appleby and Derek Hayes stand around table testing material for the tactile collider

Project member Ben Jeffries, Dr Chris Edmonds, Dr Rob Appleby and Derek Hayes, visually impaired visitor testing material for the tactile collider.
(Credit: STFC)

Blind and partially sighted children throughout the UK are for the first time able to experience the amazing science of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider thanks to a brand new exhibit by physicists and engineers from the Cockcroft Institute in Daresbury, Cheshire.

Tactile Collider is a first-of-its kind project and includes specially designed activities, tactile objects and soundscapes inspired by the Large Hadron Collider with the aim of bringing the science and the excitement of the Large Hadron Collider to visually impaired children, their parents, carers and teachers. To do this, the scientists and engineers involved have had to totally rethink their approach to public engagement.

The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. One of its greatest achievements so far has been the discovery of the Higgs boson. It was both a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the universe, and generated interest in physics and engineering in young people thinking about their careers.

The Cockcroft Institute’s Dr Rob Appleby, Reader in Physics at the University of Manchester, has been leading the project and is funded through a public engagement grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). He explains why the audience must come first: “We wanted to ensure we were creating an experience that was right for our audience, and to do that it was really critical for us to talk to our audience.”

Kirin Saeed is visually impaired and works as an audio description and visual impairment consultant. She is one of the people helping to make Tactile Collider a success: “What is exciting for me is that blind and visually impaired people really are at the heart of this project. I’ve been consulting on this process from the beginning, and while it’s been challenging it’s also been really rewarding.”

There are number of barriers that can preventing the blind and partially sighted from engaging with science. Dr Chris Edmonds, Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, worked with Dr Appleby to develop the Tactile Collider project. He says: “We had to think very carefully about the amount of information we could present and the communication methods used. Vision allows us to take in a vast amount of information at any one time. If you can’t see, building up the same information using tools like tactile maps can be time consuming and tiring.”

Despite increasing efforts to improve accessibility, museums and science centres can still be hostile environments for people who are blind and partially sighted. Objects may be hidden behind glass making them totally inaccessible, and even audio or visual stations placed too close together can create confusing sound pollution.

The Tactile Collider is in its pilot phase, and will be tested with its first group today (October 11th) at St Vincent’s School for Blind and Partially Sighted Children in Liverpool, before shared with children up and down the country.

Kirin Saeed can’t wait to see where the project will lead: “Science is often regarded as a ‘no-no’ for blind and partially sighted people, particularly when it comes to complex ideas. I think getting people to try it, and believe they can do it, is just brilliant.”

Find out more about STFC’s public engagement grants.

To discuss Tactile Collider, contact Dr Rob Appleby.

RNIB Radio interview with the Tactile Collider team:

Listen on Audioboom

Useful links:

The Cockcroft Institute


Museum of Science and Industry

Science and Technology Facilities Council
Switchboard: +44 (0)1793 442000