The annual tradition of AstroMIL, a festive celebration of astronomy at the MIL campus of the Université de Montréal, is coordinated each year by the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets in collaboration with various partners. This tradition continued last year on October 14, 2023, under the theme “A Solar Wink“, providing the public with a unique chance to witness a partial solar eclipse and get ready for the once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. The event featured the distribution of approximately 1000 eclipse glasses to the Montreal public, along with numerous engaging learning kiosks, face painting, and more.
Notably, a new type of kiosk was introduced, specifically designed to convey concepts related to astronomical phenomena through multi-sensory experiences.
Learning in multiple ways, using our senses, helps our brains understand and remember things better. This approach to teaching, referred to as “multi-sensory learning”, incorporates auditory, tactile, and visual stimuli into activities. In doing so, it engages various parts of the human brain, offering learners multiple avenues to establish connections, comprehend concepts, and retain knowledge. For instance, when kids do activities that involve hearing, touching, and seeing, it helps them connect the sound, feel, and look of what they’re learning. This method of teaching is helpful for all learners, but in particular those who find conventional teaching environments challenging. In typical classrooms, just focusing on listening and seeing can be tough, especially for students who have complex sensory needs.
While it might not be possible to use all our senses every time we learn, using different senses makes learning (and teaching!) more interesting and inclusive. This is true for a variety of topics, like astronomy. Grasping the complexities of outer space is challenging due to the immense time and spatial scales involved, far surpassing the familiar scales of our human experiences. By involving our senses—listening, touching, and seeing—we can make it easier for students to get into astronomy and enjoy learning about this weird and wonderful Universe we all call home.
At the AstroMIL sensory astronomy kiosk, we first used the LightSound device, created in 2017, that serves the Blind and Low Vision (BLV) community by offering a unique way to experience a solar eclipse through sound. By converting light intensity data into musical tones, it allows users to perceive changes as the Moon eclipses the Sun during a solar event. Powered by a battery or USB connection to a laptop, the device can be connected to headphones or speakers for individual or group experiences. Additionally, data can be collected and saved for future analysis when connected to a computer.
LightSound devices are best used when there are big changes in the amount of light received by the aperture. To effectively use these devices during October partial eclipse in Montreal, the AstroMIL team developed a demo where participants could simulate eclipses and transits using flashlights and differently-sized styrofoam balls. This hands-on demonstration proved very effective in illustrating many important concepts related to these phenomena, such as why larger exoplanets are easier to detect via the transit method. Using the LightSound device, participants were able to explore how variations in pitch, representing changes in light intensity, were more pronounced and easier to hear with larger objects (in other words, planets!). The iREx team is very excited to test these devices out during the total solar eclipse in April!
The LightSound Project provides supportive documentation in English, French, and Spanish, and users are encouraged to explore creative applications and acquire their own devices through the initiative’s webpage.
Transforming astronomy data into sound has a big impact on how we learn about space. It’s like giving space a voice! Instead of relying on our eyes to look at pictures, we can listen to the sounds of astrophysical objects and events, making space more understandable and even more exciting. This method, called “sonification”, makes complex space images from space easier to grasp and adds a cool layer to how we learn about the universe. It also allows members of the BLV public to interact with these images and perceive astronomical phenomena through sound.
At our sonification booth during astroMIL, we set up iPads with headphones for the public to view or listen to audio versions of famous astronomy images. Curated into a playlist, these videos covered various scales of the Universe, and were sourced from platforms like YouTube and created by public education entities such as NASA and SystemSounds. Christopher Teil, a recent graduate from Polytechnique Montréal who is a member of our AstroPoly and a volunteer at AstroMIL, even crafted a sonification video for an image of a solar eclipse at the precise moment of 100% totality. Experience the sounds of a solar eclipse by listening to Christopher’s video:
Astronomy is a field of BIG data! Space missions and surveys have yielded a wealth of images, movie clips, and diverse data spanning various scales. These resources have played a crucial role in enabling most individuals to visualize, interpret, and map everything from planetary surfaces to the large-scale structure of the cosmic web. Yet, a concern emerges for people with visual impairments or blindness—how can we make sure these discoveries are just as meaningful for them?
Tactile books are educational resources designed for individuals within the BLV community, and provide a multisensory approach to learning. These books incorporate raised surfaces, contrasting textures, and embossed images, allowing readers to explore and comprehend information through touch. The tactile elements represent various shapes, objects, or patterns, providing a tangible experience that enhances understanding. In the context of astronomy, tactile books may feature representations of celestial bodies, planetary surfaces, or astronomical concepts, enabling individuals with visual disabilities to access and engage with scientific content, fostering inclusivity and making the wonders of the universe accessible through the sense of touch.
For AstroMIL, we customized a tactile book (originally from the U.S.; developed by NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute) about eclipses by adding French braille labels to serve Montréal’s francophone audience. These books explain the Earth-Moon-Sun system, various eclipse configurations, and paths of totality for specific past solar eclipses. At our October event, many people found it fascinating to explore these phenomena using different textures and encounter English and French braille translations of astronomy terms. The book received such positive feedback that our team is currently working on creating similar materials tailored for Canadian audiences.
We showcased various 3D models, printed at UdeM’s Bibliothèque des sciences on the MIL campus, featuring examples like the near and far sides of the Moon and the Copernicus crater. Some models were sourced from online databases, such as NASA’s repository, while others were specifically crafted for our event. Notably, our Eclipse Ambassador Maria Sadikov, a UdeM Master’s student, developed a series of models illustrating lunar and solar eclipse phases. Additionally, another Eclipse Ambassador, Érika Le Bourdais, an iREx Master’s student, created a groundbreaking 3D model of a total solar eclipse, including solar prominences and coronal filaments (download the model here!).
AstroMIL 2023 was an incredible multisensory eclipse adventure, celebrating astronomy on the MIL campus of the Université de Montréal. The integration of multisensory experiences, such as those described above, showcases iREx’s commitment to making astronomy accessible and engaging for diverse audiences and highlights the potential for innovative approaches in science communication and learning.
Visit our Eclipse page to find out about all our initiatives related to solar eclipses, and the one on April 8, 2024 in particular!
AstroMIL 2023 is an event organized by the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets at Université de Montréal. Thanks to our partners at UdeM (campus MIL de l’Université de Montréal, the Faculté des arts et des sciences de l’Université de Montréal), as well as the Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec, the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic, the ASTROLab at Mont-Mégantic, AstroPoly, the Fédération des astronomes amateurs du Québec (FAAQ), la Société d’Astronomie de Montréal (SAM), the Société d’astronomie du Planétarium de Montréal (SAPM), the Société d’astronomie de la Montérégie (SAMO), Bettina Forget (artist), TSI Outreach, Éditions Multimondes and the Planck, le café étudiant de physique à l’UdeM.