Making STEM subjects accessible

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Andy Keenan highlights how to give SEND visitors a great day out.

Everyone loves a day out at a visitor attraction. And with the year that we’ve all just experienced it’s more important now than ever that everyone can look forward to an enjoyable, fun day out. At Winchester Science Centre we are on a mission to ensure that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is accessible to all no matter their age, ability or background. One way that our charity does this is through providing engaging, inspiring and fun experiences at our visitor attraction.

Making simple improvements makes a huge difference

Visitor attractions such as ours, are venues filled with people having fun, so naturally they can be overwhelming, and sometimes uninviting, places for people with accessibility requirements or sensory sensitivities. Most visitor attractions will provide basic accessibility requirements such as designated parking, level or ramp access and dedicated toilet facilities, but often this isn’t enough. With such a unique venue as ours, which includes a pyramid-shaped building and a huge domed planetarium, it could have been easy to fall into this trap.

However, by making simple improvements, listening to visitor comments, taking advice from advisory panels and rethinking the way we do things, we are identifying ways to go above and beyond, to allow visitors to engage with our experience in ways that they have not been able to before.

Thrilled by STEM – Harvey Mills Photography

In 2019 we successfully won a grant to support upgrades that were needed in our planetarium. We made some small changes that created a big difference to the experience, including adding an induction loop, running subtitled shows and improving the lighting on the stairways. We installed wheelchair access to the stage for presenters and reserved wheelchair spaces with seats for carers. We also introduced personalised audio tracks and 3D printed tactile resources to enable people with hearing and visual impairments to better share the planetarium experience alongside friends and family.

Listening to feedback

As well as identifying changes ourselves, it is hugely important that we listen to the opinions of our visitors. They are the best source of information when it comes to understanding what is and isn’t working. In 2018, we were approached by one of our visitors whose son had cerebral palsy. The little boy loved science and visiting the Science Centre, but with no easy way

Making STEM subjects accessible of helping him use the toilet, a day out was a challenge for his family. We realised that there must be so many other families missing an opportunity to have an enjoyable day out because of this very same reason. As a result, we started a fundraising campaign to raise money to install a Changing Places facility.

In October 2019, our efforts paid off and we were able to open the facility and go one step further by making it accessible 24/7 with access via an NKS radar key even when the visitor attraction is closed.

Rethinking how we do things and generally thinking outside of the box has become a big part of how we approach our accessibility and inclusivity. This was never truer than whenwe decided to improve our acoustics. With a unique pyramid-shaped building constructed of concrete, glass and steel, the venue could get extremely noisy, something that our visitors had told us was a problem for those with sensory sensitivities. We therefore worked with specialist acoustic engineers, Sustainable Acoustics, to identify ‘noise hot-spots’ where acoustic solutions could be installed to improve the environment for all visitors.

The strong evidence that acoustic treatment could help overcome sound challenges, won us the support from global acoustic specialist, Ecophon, who worked with us to deliver the products needed. From a calming wave-like installation above the welcome area to fun pink patchwork squares over the café to an exclusively designed acoustic tree with leaves shaped like those of the English Oak, each set of acoustics focuses on solving sound problems, improving ambient noise and providing an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Constantly evolving

As well as improving the facilities, we are constantly evolving our public offering, to ensure we are providing the best possible experience for every customer. We’ve learnt that accessibility needs to be a strategic priority at the top level, so that it filters into every aspect of development, from planning to delivery. Creating accessible experiences isn’t solved simply by throwing money at it, it’s as much about understanding the barriers and investing the time to do this properly.

STEM activities.

We have a guiding principle when it comes to accessibility and inclusivity – ‘no decision about me, without me’. As a result of this we set up an advisory panel in 2018 to inform the decision making process regarding accessibility improvements.

The panel includes individuals who represent a wide range of disability and impairments and they have played a major role in supporting the charity in a number of ways, especially through providing valuable advice on new initiatives.

One such initiative was the creation of a ‘Recombobulation Room’. By consulting with our panel, we were able to identify that the Science Centre can become a bit overwhelming for some visitors. There’s a lot of noise and activity so it was suggested that a quiet place was needed away from the hustle and bustle of the visitor experience. These conversations led to the creation of the Recombobulation Room, which has been welcomed as a sanctuary for those with sensory sensitivities and a place for deaf visitors to escape when things have got a bit too busy and a reset is needed.

I started this article by saying that everyone should be able to look forward to and enjoy a fun day out and I want to finish with the same thought. Many visitor attractions may not realise that they are creating barriers to this by not implementing simple changes. It is therefore crucial that customers feel empowered to voice their concerns when something is not working and praise attractions that are doing it right. At Winchester Science Centre, we’re not stopping yet. We’re planning British Sign Language interpretations of our exhibits, sensory maps and increased training of disability-confident staff. We’re determined to make a difference, because after all, everyone deserves to have the opportunity to create memorable experiences with friends and families.

Andy Keenan
Author: Andy Keenan

Andy Keenan
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Andy Keenan is the Head of Widening Participation and Engagement at Winchester Science Centre

Winchester Science Centre is an educational charity and in his role, Andy is responsible for ensuring that the visitor experience and outreach activities are fully accessible to all. He also manages all of the charity's outreach activities including working with schools, communities, universities and industry partners to provide fun and inspiring STEM experiences for all.

W: winchestersciencecentre.org
Social media handles: F:  @winchestersciencecentre

T: @WinSciCentre 

 

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