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

New signs have been developed to communicate the topics of movement, the Universe, light and sight, and energy and radiation with the aim of giving 11-16 year olds with hearing difficulties a better opportunity to engage with engineering and physics.

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

Launching the new signs during an event at the Royal Academy of Engineering, a research team from The Scottish Sensory Centre 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 – hand shape, 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.

The 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 at:

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 the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Biology.

Bola Fatimilehinm, Head of Diversity at the Academy, said: “It was a real privilege to be in a position to host the event on behalf of the STEM Disability Committee. The audience told us that the new physics and engineering signs developed by the Scottish Sensory Centre are a much needed boost to the existing glossary of BSL terms.

“While they are primarily for the benefit of deaf students, they can also help hearing students grasp concepts and so, as with many activities aimed at increasing access, the benefits ripple out beyond the intended target group.”

Notes for editors

  1. STEM-DC was established in 2011. It exists within the wider picture of diversity in STEM but has specific focus on all aspects of disability. Its area of interest spans the whole STEM pipeline, including those aspiring to a STEM career as well as those already employed in a STEM role.

    Core members are those organisations in the STEM community who have made a clear commitment to increasing disability access for people studying or working in STEM: Campaign for Science and Engineering, Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Biology. For more information, visit
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0655