by Jorge Rivero González
How can you share astronomy with someone who cannot see? Astronomy is one of the most visual sciences and we, astronomers, use the beautiful images produced by state-of-the-art observatories to introduce astronomical concepts to our public. Even the way we articulate our speeches is visually-focused and usually contains expressions such as: “Have you ever seen…?”, “What can you see on…?”, etc. It was something that bothered me more and more each day as our activities with visually impaired children in Bolivia approached. The answer turned out to be just time and patience.
Fortunately, there are a few organisations like Meet our Neighbours and A Touch of the Universe, (one of GalileoMobile’s partners) who have made a huge effort to develop tactile kits and activities that help people understand the landscape on the surface of the Moon, know the main features of the planets in our Solar System or perceive that different stars lie at different distances from us without needing to use their sight.
We worked with around 12 people from all ages. The youngest was 11 and the oldest around 70. They had different levels of visual impairment. We prepared three activities: one about the Moon and the lunar phases, one about the Solar System and another about stars and constellations. The idea was to make three groups with similar ages and make sure that all groups spent 30 minutes on each activity.
I worked with the stars and constellation activity and tried to start a discussion about what they thought a star is. The children told me that no one ever spoken to them about the stars. It was a bit sad. They imagined a ball of fire on the sky; well, not very far from reality, is it? Children have such wonderful imagination! I passed the two-dimensional tactile models around first, so that they could understand the concept of a constellation, and then we played with the three-dimensional models, to feel that all stars in a constellation don’t necessarily lie at the same distance.
During that activity, one of the children was very curious, always making questions, most of them about light and darkness. While he was exploring the model I was talking to him about the Orion constellation and how he could find it, when he interrupted me:
“Wait, I’m inspecting it first. You scientists need some patience!”
I was left speechless. I could only tell him that he was completely right and patience was one of the best qualities of a good scientist. He could take all the time he wanted. That conversation really stroke a chord inside me. We tried to make as many activities as we could, working with as many children as possible and sometimes we forgot to just look around and take some time to appreciate where we are or what we are doing.
Kenya is another student that I will remember. She is 9 years old and that was her first day at the school, so she was a bit nervous. The first time I talked to her I noticed she was shivering. Her father was close to her and she looked to him for comfort, so I decided that if I got her father involved in the activities, she would feel safer. I will never forget her smile, at the end, when she found the seven stars that make part of the Pleiades on the tactile sphere.
Some of the adults remembered the beauty of the night sky but they also told us that no one has ever talked to them about the sky. Clemente and Martin, who were the oldest in the group, were quite interested on all topics and had so many questions that it was a pleasure talking with them. We all agreed that we’d need to spend more time together and I really do hope that in the future it will be possible.
One of GalileoMobile’s goals is to take astronomy to places that lack such opportunities, and this also means people that are usually excluded when we talk about the wonders of the sky. I feel this was one the most beautiful experiences in a GalileoMobile expedition. Our motto, “All together under the same sky”, this time had more meaning than ever.