Department of Social & Policy Sciences

Researchers are having a whale of a time

Tue Jun 21 14:12:00 BST 2016


Children from Colerne Primary School presenting their research to University of Bath students

— Children from Colerne Primary School present their research to University of Bath students.


It’s not often that a university plays host to primary school children, but last April was one such time. Caroline Hickman from the Department of Social & Policy Sciences and Denise Lengyel of the Department of Computer Science concluded an engaged research project with Colerne CE Primary School. This involved inviting the children to present their research findings in one of the University’s lecture theatres.

Ed Stevens, of the University’s Public Engagement Unit who funded the project, explained the concept, saying: ‘The project was to engage very young children in the world of research. That world might at first appear intimidating, so we wanted to show that it can be accessible and were keen to see whether the children would embrace it.’

And embrace it, they did. As one youngster said: ‘Research is fun’. The project focused around climate change and the natural environment. It used art, storytelling and the outdoors to give children the opportunity to undertake their own research project and present their findings to a group of first year undergraduate students at the University. 


Children from Colerne Primary School drawing a whale

— Children from Colerne Primary School drawing a whale.


At the heart of the research was a story, entitled ‘The Wiltshire Whale’s Tale’. The story read: 'Once upon a time a Humpback whale calf appeared on Colerne CE Primary School playing field. He came to teach the children about sand whales and fluking; diving and singing underwater; and how his tail sticks out of the water when he dives deep down into the blue to feed. He told wonderful tales of other whales and the sea to them, he taught them about climate change and how whales and the oceans need our protection. The children listened and learnt from his stories, drew many wonderful pictures of whales for him; and in return they told him stories about their lives on land and their dreams of the sea; and then they learnt that the story they were part of could sometimes be called research. When he had to leave the children planted crocus bulbs in the field to help them remember him every year when they flower.'


Flowers making a shape of a whale

— The children took part in flower planting.


Inspired by her life-sized drawings of whales on beaches in Cornwall, Denise and Caroline worked with local artist Sonia Shomalzadeh, who created a spray paint life-sized outline of a humpback whale calf on the school playing field. The outline was planted by the children with help from the university researchers, Sonia and friends. It was done with crocus bulbs which have recently flowered to remind the children of their research project and act as a metaphor for the fragility of the marine environment affected by climate change.

Head Teacher Rob Parsons was delighted to participate. He said: ‘This opportunity doesn’t come along very often: to give 4 to 11-year-olds a taste of higher education, to inspire them to dream big. Perhaps some of the children who took part will go on to get a degree, to work for the University, to become teachers, lecturers or even professors. Maybe these few months spent learning research skills will ignite a passion that they will carry with them forever.’

A project that leaves such young participants saying 'thinking of doing research again gives me butterflies in my stomach' might just have succeeded in inspiring some future researchers.