Creating Accessible STEM Outreach Activities

by | Mar 6, 2020

On Wednesday the 19 February, Engagement@Manchester hosted a best practice event centred on creating science outreach activities that are accessible and engaging for young people with sensory impairments.

The session was chaired by Emma Nichols, Public Engagement Manager, Department of Physics and featured guest speakers Robyn Watson, a teacher of the visually-impaired from Thomasson Memorial Sensory Support Service and Sam Tygier from Tactile Collider.

Attendees participated in hands-on activities with some of the tactile resources, explored what makes for accessible science, and found out about opportunities for getting involved with accessible science events planned for summer 2020.

What activities did the attendees try?

Robyn set up some activities so that attendees could step into the shoes of the children with sensory impairments by experiencing everyday tasks blindfolded. Attendees had to slice vegetables, guess what was inside of different tinned goods, match socks and put toothpaste onto a toothbrush. Having had a go at the activities, Robyn challenged attendees to consider how this experience could help shape the development of their own science outreach activities for the visually impaired.

Attendee Dr Naomi Curati said of the activities, “I found the workshop fun and thought-provoking. It has prompted me to think critically about how accessible the engagement activities I am putting together are to people with sensory impairments, and given me some ideas about developing tactile props.

What did Robyn say about creating accessible science outreach activities?

Robyn opened the event by exploring what is needed in creating accessible science outreach activities for children. Her key considerations included:

  • Children with sensory impairments come to science outreach sessions to be excited by science, not just to learn about science. Particularly when working with children with sensory impairments or complex needs, enjoyment is key as this is often not accessible in schools and at events.
  • As a scientist or engagement practitioner, don’t assume any prior knowledge on behalf of the children. Ask questions to gauge their knowledge and experience and think carefully about how you describe research, concepts and activities, without patronising the children.
  • Make sure that demonstrations are simple enough for someone with no prior knowledge or experience with science to understand and keep a steady pace as children with complex or sensory needs can take a longer time to process information.
  • The level of sensory impairment will vary between children as will academic ability so build in time for the children to do the activity to completion – it may take longer than you think.
  • Reflect on how you can adapt your activities by using a range of different sounds and making them visually exciting with use of different colours or bright lights etc. Aim for fireworks – i.e. short bursts of wow!
  • Delivering activities is about how you frame things – you don’t need to have any prior knowledge of science, making topics exciting and accessible is key.

Take a look at more top tips from Robyn in this short film.

What did Sam say about Tactile Collider?

Tactile Collider is a project that aims to teach children with sensory impairments about particle accelerator physics and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Launched by Dr Robert Appleby in the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, the project is also led by Project Managers Dr Chris Edmonds and Robyn Watson. Funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the project attempts to create a new model of scientific communication for the visually impaired and directly tackles the issue of communicating with under-represented audiences about science.

The Tactile Collider project has been the recipient of many awards, including the 2019 European Physics Society (EPS) Outreach Award, the 2019 RNIB See Differently Awards and our own Better World and Making a Difference Awards. The communication frameworks used by Tactile Collider can be used for all audiences and represent an innovative approach to encouraging diversity and outreach in science activities.

Sam detailed how Tactile Collider coordinates its engagement activities:

In performing outreach activities and giving students access to scientists, Tactile Collider aims to inspire students to see physics as a viable career option. Students take part in four participatory workshops which start with particles and magnets, using equipment such as 3D jigsaws with embedded magnets. Students then go on to explore the science behind particle acceleration and the Higgs boson. Tactile Collider also have an embodied learning session where groups of students are given a sentence that they have to act out, such as ‘Protons in the Large Hadron Collider go around the ring at 11,000 times a second’.
Some of the other accessible activities created include the CASSIE model accelerator, where students get to see how different components fit together by feeling a five metre diameter scale model of the accelerator, and the ‘sonic collider’ which allows users to experience, for example, particle collisions and acceleration through sound.

Sam also shared what he has learnt about delivering accessible science:

The biggest surprises that Sam has found in delivering accessible science are making assumptions about a sensory impairment as there are a wide range of them as well as how genuinely excited the children are about physics.

To deliver science outreach, effective communication and clear instructions are key in making activities more accessible as well as building formative evaluation into the process. Also, you have to be prepared to adapt by having backup activities and spare materials as there may be missing people and equipment on the day as well as being prepared to accommodate a range of needs and abilities in your students.

Take a look at more top tips from Sam in this short film.

Tactile Universe and Emma’s tips for creating accessible science:

Finally, Emma introduced us to some of the 3d-printed galaxy models from Tactile Universe – an award-winning project at the University of Portsmouth Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation to engage the visually impaired community with astrophysics research.

Think about different ways you could explain your topic – those pretty space pictures in your talk might be lovely to look at but are they really crucial? Robyn and I put together an event last year for a small group of children with visual impairments, and my brief asked for no Powerpoint presentations, worksheets or information handouts, but lots of hands-on activities and things that engaged different senses. Rather than those constraints limiting people, the activities they came back with were really varied and brilliant, and would have been great with any schools group.”

An opportunity…

Emma and Robyn have been awarded funding from STFC Wonder Match, which provides opportunities for community organisations and researchers to meet together and develop ideas for engagement activities. As part of their award, they are planning to deliver engagement activities for primary and secondary school pupils with sensory impairments in June.

If you are interested in finding out more about this opportunity and/or would like to take part in a workshop run by Emma and Robyn in April/May to help you craft your own accessible science activity, then get in touch with Emma at