Making Science Accessible

Anna Voelker has embarked on a lifelong quest to make science accessible to everyone. Pursuing a new, custom degree program in science communication and accessibility, Voelker is redesigning a planetarium show for visually impaired audiences.

Until autumn 2016, the third-year student from Pittsburgh had been an honors double major in astronomy and physics. 

However, because her love for astronomy and physics is intertwined with her passion for making science accessible, she knew she had to have as many tools at her fingertips as possible.   

“At the end of the day, my message is simple: If science is important to you, then you have the potential to be important to science. Your unique experience is needed, your ideas are needed,
you are needed.”

{Anna Voelker}

That’s what made her explore her options with Ohio State’s Personalized Study Program. Voelker was able to design her own major in science communication and accessibility while minoring in astronomy and astrophysics. 

“I am very excited to be majoring in science communication and accessibility; I was able to personally select courses that apply perfectly to what I want to do with my life,” Voelker said. 

“My major plan involves a course about 3-D modeling, which I hope to apply to my interest in 3-D printing astronomical bodies for blind and low-vision audiences.”

Voelker’s work is made possible by a grant from the National Federation of the Blind, provided by the National Science Foundation, which is funding multiple collaborations with science centers around the country. 

Anna Voelker

Aside from her work in redesigning a planetarium show for visually impaired audiences, Voelker recently created a series of original theatre games for COSI’s Sensory Disability Day, a project designed to make COSI more accessible to children with disabilities.

“My primary project is to create a planetarium experience inclusive of blind audiences,” Voelker said. “This means I will be focusing on tactile astronomy and using 3-D printing, so that during the show, visitors can feel the constellations on a model of the sky.” 

Voelker is creating her planetarium show at COSI, a science museum and research center in Columbus. She is corresponding with astronomy-accessibility experts around the world and will likely use a model of the night sky developed by a team in Spain. 

She also wants to be inclusive of those who are deaf-blind, so she says she avoids relying entirely on a sight/sound combination with no tactile element.

She aims to implement the principles of universal design to involve sustainable enhancements and long-lasting change. She wants to develop a revised show integrated into COSI’s regular schedule and run on a reccurring basis year-round.

“My goal is to print out 200+ copies of this model so that every single audience member can have their very own tactile sky. I want to normalize accessibility by making this show a shared experience for sighted and blind visitors alike.

“We are working toward a world of astronomy education where these types of multi-sensory materials are standard,” Voelker said. “I hope that inclusive experiences, such as the one that this planetarium project aims to offer, not only become more widely accepted but also become expected of science centers and institutes. I dream of a world in which educational accessibility is second nature.”

Voelker’s project is just the latest step on her ambitious scientific journey. She previously has interned at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, served on NASA’s public outreach team and worked as an accessibility intern at COSI.

“I want to combat misconceptions regarding who can be a scientist by sharing this information and the many other innovative ways in which science can be done,” she said.

Anna recently gave a TED Talk in Pittsburgh demonstrating how science education can be made accessible to everyone, through art.

Through her personalized major, Anna Voelker is making science more accessible to those with disabilities #ASCDaily