World’s first ‘Tactile Collider’ inspires hundreds of VI and sighted students

THE world’s first interactive ‘Tactile Collider’, designed by visually impaired students, two scientists and a science teacher from the North-West, created huge interest at an international science symposium Particle Colliders: Accelerating Innovation in Liverpool last week . The novel project uses 3D-printed magnets, whole body learning and ideas from an immersive zombie game app to communicate science, making it accessible to visually impaired and sighted students alike.

Alongside the Tactile Collider, almost 500 visually impaired (VI) and sighted students from across Liverpool and the region also had the chance to play proton football and interact with visualisations of themselves in two different universes within CERN’s interactive Large Hadron Collider Tunnel – which will have its UK premiere at Particle Colliders: Accelerating Innovations. The symposium highlighted progress on a successor to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the benefits of discovery science to industry, science and society.

Robyn Watson, a teacher of the visually impaired specialising in science, explains that ‘embodied learning’, where youngsters are intellectually, physically, and socially engaged with problem solving, offers real benefits to students of all abilities:

“So many blind people say they didn’t like science at school, that they couldn’t do it because it’s so visual. But it just needed someone to make it accessible. Most activities are developed for sighted children and then adapted, but Tactile Collider is different. Chris and Rob from the Cockcroft Institute wanted to understand from the students with visual impairment what would work best for them.”

Dr Rob Appleby and Dr Chris Edmonds, working alongside a team of VI students, started developing the concept of Tactile Collider in 2016. The two scientists from the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool, respectively, approached a number of organisations to ensure the world-leading science experience would work in the best possible way for students – and enlisted the help of Robyn, who works for Bolton’s Sensory Support Services.

Robyn explains: “One of my VI students, Jack, said that he specifically likes learning through sound. He showed us a game on his iPad, where the screen is blank but, when you put the headphones in, you can hear zombies coming in surround sound. Chris, Rob and I had a go – we were all terrible! So, Tactile Collider has been developed with that kind of learning in mind.”

According to the Royal National Institute of the Blind, 1 in 5 people will start to live with sight loss in their lifetime.

Tactile Collider has four stations where students engage with a scientist to find out about the central ideas in particle physics: that everything is made of particles, how magnets are used to steer and focus beams, how particles are accelerated and the discovery of a fundamental particle, the Higgs Boson. The 90-minute experience culminates at an interactive scale model of a particle accelerator that students can touch, interact with and listen to recordings from the real LHC.

“One of the most fun parts of Tactile Collider is where the students get to work with a real-life scientist to act out a sentence about what they’ve just learnt. Such as ‘the protons in the particle accelerator go around the ring at 11,000 times a second’, which usually involves kids spinning each other around! A lot of people can feel daunted by particle physics, but it is possible to make complex ideas accessible and the kids always come away feeling like they’ve achieved something,” adds Robyn.

On Friday, Liverpool and Wirral students alongside international delegates got to experience Tactile Collider at the Particle Colliders: Accelerating Innovation Symposium held at Liverpool ACC. The symposium also included talks from leading physicists, an industry exhibition and careers fair, and an Industry Innovation Workshop to discuss opportunities for joint research between academia and industry.

Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool, coordinated the symposium alongside CERN and partners from the EuroCircol and Future Circular Collider projects. He explains:  “We’re really excited about all ages coming together to share scientific learning at the symposium – and Tactile Collider is a huge part of that. To our knowledge the symposium is the first-ever event in the accelerator community that’s be fully inclusive for people with vision impairment.

“Particle colliders are very large ‘atom smashers’ that improve our understanding of the fundamental building blocks and forces that make up our universe. However, creating and running the world’s largest collider is not just about science, it has also driven technological progress, with developments such as super computers, the internet, proton cancer therapy, medical imaging and advances in food preservation being a few of the examples. Particle physics is our generation’s equivalent of space exploration.  It has the potential to change the world and everyone should be involved and able to believe that anything is possible for them.”

Tactile Collider is a Cockcroft Institute initiative, which includes the University of Manchester, the University of Liverpool and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and funding from Research Councils UK. It is currently touring the UK, visiting schools, VI centres and festivals before moving to Europe later in 2019. More information available at tactilecollider.uk