Tactile Universe for blind people wins award

SPPEA-7159A University of Portsmouth project to help visually impaired people learn about the universe has received an innovation award from the South East Physics Network.

The Tactile Universe – a series of 3D printed images of galaxies which can be used in schools and at public events – was named Innovation Project winner at the network’s 2017 Public Engagement Awards.

The images, developed by the university’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG), allow blind and visually impaired children and adults to ‘see’ the universe by feeling the shapes and compositions of astronomical objects.

Since its launch this year, the Tactile Universe has been engaging children in schools including Toynbee School in Chandler’s Ford and Kings Copse Primary School in Hedge End.

Blind astronomer and project lead Dr Nicolas Bonne has been taking the images to visually impaired pupils. He said: “The students have been looking pretty happy and they keep coming back for more, which is really nice. After our first public event, we realised that several sessions with the Tactile Universe might be useful for people – so that we can follow up and make sure participants are learning and staying engaged. That’s what we’re trying to do in the classrooms and we’re pleased with the feedback so far. The students really seem to be enjoying it.”

Nicolas and the team are delighted about the award. He said: “I was really surprised as there was some stiff competition. This shows that people think the Tactile Universe is important and we’re doing something good.”

The Tactile Universe was also a hit at Night Sky Live, a recent event at Winchester Science Centre. ICG’s Dr Jen Gupta said: “The reaction was very positive. Using the additional sense of touch really seems to help people engage, regardless of their level of vision.

“There was one little boy with a vision impairment who came to Night Sky Live and seemed a bit star struck by Nic though. Here was someone who was blind like him who had achieved all this stuff. He went a little bit shy.”

The innovation gong was among three to be awarded to ICG by the South East Physics Network – a partnership of nine university physics departments. Dr Karen Masters won the Achievement Award for her commitment to embedding and supporting public engagement at the ICG, as well as her own record of engagement. Lucy Newnham was highly commended in the Newcomer category for her work as a PhD outreach representative at the ICG.

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