More than 100 new signs for deaf physics students

20 June 2012

To ensure that hearing difficulties don’t deter students from the subjects, more than 100 new Physics and Engineering terms and definitions have been developed in British Sign Language.

Man using technical sign for physics

New signs helping to communicate the topics of movement, the Universe, light and sight, and energy and radiation have been developed to give 11-16 year olds with hearing difficulties a better opportunity to engage with Physics and Engineering.

Phrases like light year and x-ray now have their own sign when previously finger-spelling and lip-reading were the most common methods for teachers and translators to communicate the meaning of their lessons.

A research team from The Scottish Sensory Centre, launching the new signs during an event at the Royal Academy of Engineering yesterday, 19 June, explained the importance of using the British Sign Language lexicon, rather than finger-spelling.

Dr Audrey Cameron, a member of the Scottish Sensory Centre’s core research team, said, “Many deaf students rely on temporary arrangements between themselves and their teacher.

“Very often the temporary signs have fingerspelling as their basis but, as well as not being consistent if the student wishes to use physics or engineering beyond the classroom, it is difficult for deaf children to cope with. They are being given English words pretending to be British Sign Language.”

The signs emerging from the research – which was funded by the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Physics in Engineering and Medicine, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society – use common British Sign Language techniques to help students understand the concepts behind the phrases.  

One such method often employed in British Sign Language is metaphor and this has, for example, helped produce signs for ‘mass’ and ‘weight’; the researchers use a closed fist to communicate ‘mass’ while ‘weight’ is communicated by a fist being pulled down (the effect of gravity on mass being metaphorically implied).

Using the five features of British Sign Language’s phonology – handshape, orientation, location, movement and facial expression – 116 new signs have been developed. These augment signs previously developed for chemistry and biology. The project has also developed, in British Sign Language, definitions for each term. These definitions explain the meaning of the term or provide an example of how it can be used.

Yesterday’s event at the Royal Academy of Engineering included an introduction to some of the new signs, explanation as to how they were developed and a demonstration during an interactive science show.

You can find short video clips for the 200 physics signs and their definitions on the Scottish Sensory Centre’s website

The project is part of the portfolio of work of the STEM-DC (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Disability Committee). A collaborative group of professional bodies working on practical ways to improve policies, practices and provision for disabled people in STEM disciplines. Core members are Campaign for Science and Engineering, Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Biology.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, welcomed the new signs as the first output of the STEM-DC initiative, “This project exemplifies the aims of STEM-DC to work on practical projects to remove barriers to science and engineering for disabled people. Everyone studies science up to 16 and the new signs will enable those who use BSL to access the full range of conceptual ideas they meet.”



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