It has been stated (De Leo, et al., 2016, 2019; Rosenberg 2014) that astronomy is an ideal gateway into science given the sense of wonder and awe it produces, the grandiose imagery, and the promise of producing answers to big questions. If that, by itself were uniquely true given these characteristics, we would be upon an extremely powerful tool that would thrust science-related vocations in younger generations. Statistics show us that legions of youths are not joining the ranks of science as we expect. Why?
In a world where the flow of (dis)information has grown exponentially, interrupting our daily rhythms and our concentration at school or work (Ophir, 2009; Rosen, et al., 2011), traditional methods of science communication have become less effective (Sandu & Christiansen, 2011), loosing their capacity to excite and attract citizens.
Science needs unorthodox, innovative and disruptive methods of communication to re-engage and excite citizens, especially the youngest. In the past three decades we have been able to see ingenious exhibitions at science museums, intricately designed science-oriented applications for mobile devices, interdisciplinary productions between the arts and sciences that obliterate boundaries: a plethora of efforts the re-ignite scientific passions from unconventional sources.
When presented with the opportunity of collaborating with the California School for the Deaf, Riverside (CDSR), the immediate question was: how can we seed a scientific vocation while being disruptive, innovative and interesting, and at the same time tending to the specific needs of the deaf community?
We started reading and asking about activities the deaf community particularly enjoys, and going to music concerts caught our attention. “The opening notes of a song that is easily recognizable to us immediately brings up some sort of emotion. People who are deaf can have this same sort of emotional connection to music, it would just be recognized from the bass notes or beat of the song rather than the (usually) higher pitched melody.” (Elaine, 2017). The keys to these connections are vibrations and neuroplasticity, a neural reorganization -mostly found by doctors in citizens that are hard-of-hearing or deaf- to process vibrations in the absence of sound.
CSDR happens to have a sound lab, which includes an interlocking wooden floor with stereo speakers that are in direct contact with it, transmitting low frequency vibrations. However, it was mostly used to show movies and for speech therapy.
Meanwhile, in the universe of astronomy, scientists have been recording radio emissions that are naturally released by different cosmic phenomena, some with the frequency that lies within the natural hearing range of humans, some others which we cannot hear. At the same time, but with different instruments, astronomers have been detecting emissions at different wavelengths of the same (or different) cosmic phenomena: gamma rays, x-rays, microwaves, etcetera. And as a third activity, scientists have been capturing a titanic amount of data from space. Frequencies of emissions which we cannot hear, can be transposed into the hearing range, and that is exactly what some scientists have done with, let's say, x-ray emissions of newly formed stars. Additionally, collected data can be converted into sound, given rules designed specifically for such a purpose, by artists or scientists, so-called sonification. Examples of exercises to bring these emissions into the hearing range are easily found on the internet for free distribution.
We put two and two together, sound lab and cosmic emissions, which were naturally or artificially ready to be heard with the human ear, and proceeded to get CDSR's teachers input on the best sounds out of a vast list. Experienced teachers identified those sounds which exhibited the highest amount of low frequencies and discernible patterns. From a list of selected few we designed a visual and vibrating experience for the students: a voyage that would take them from Earth to the edge of the Universe.
And, although students were briefed before the activity as to what was to happen inside the sound lab, during the first run it was obvious that we, as designers of an outreach event, forgot how we got there in the first place: music and neuroplasticity.
Firstly, in the excitement of designing the activity, we forgot to compare vibrations from cosmic phenomena (auroras, solar explosions, astroseismology, the natural emissions of Saturn, the cosmic microwave background), with things that the deaf community detects as vibrations everyday. Students were excited but somewhat perplexed at the beginning of the activity as to what space had to do with vibrations, and puzzled faces abounded. Secondly, even though the selected sounds were populated with low-frequencies, some had a higher-frequency component. We inadvertently forgot to ask students with a cochlear implant to turn it off during the activity. Some students quickly asked for the volume to be turned down; a major mishap on our side. Thirdly, and as any seasoned ASL interpreter would be able to tell you, there is a preferred sequence for information to flow: one must talk, then it will be interpreted into ASL, followed by any audiovisual content being provided to students, otherwise the audience is split between looking at the interpreter or tending to the TV screen which is showing computer animations of the cosmos. We went back to the drawing board. Which were the solutions?
We started each activity showcasing music first, and reminding students that music is produced from vibrations and that energy from objects in space was being transformed into sound, and therefore vibrations, for the sake of the activity. As for cochlear implants, we requested all students to turn them off during the workshop. And lastly, we followed a very strict order in the flow of information, for students to take in all the information before it was displayed on screen and while at the same time producing vibrations on the floor.
Our evaluations show that this second version of the workshop was very well received by students, and we have repeated it several times since then with great success. At the end of each session questions abound and students are extremely excited, they demand more information, more vibrations.
Excitement fills the air, curiosity permeates the minds of these young students, unconventional outreach has put science in the spotlight.
Paper "The Vibrating Universe: Astronomy for the Deaf": https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10956-018-9761-1
Public resources for The Vibrating Universe activity: http://www.astro.ucr.edu/outreach/vibratinguniverse