Batty about research

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Carol Blyth describes a scheme that encourages students with special needs to become researchers

What links life on Mars, custard and a potato travelling at 800 kilometres an hour? For members of our science club at Aylesbury Grammar School, the answer is the Researchers in Residence scheme. This year, as it is the tenth anniversary of the scheme, we aim to put something back by raising cash to adapt a heat of the Express Yourself Conference (part of RinR) to be fully accessible to young scientists with any physical disability.

RinR gives students from Years 7-13 the chance to get involved with real scientific research, and present their findings at the Express Yourself conferences taking place around the country. The best teams from each region then go to a national final, where a Junior Royal Institution Lecture is selected for the following year.

This fun is funded by Research Councils UK, which placees inspirational young scientists - Researchers in Residence - into schools to help staff.

Their enthusiasm and expertise stimulate pupils to do their own research.

In the past two years, our most successful team has been the bat survey group, which also spoke at the Association for Science Education conference in January. We have been going to parks in Milton Keynes with staff at the Parks Trust to help with a survey to detect the presence of bats before work to the trees is done. This involves using a sensor device which detects ultrasound signals and outputs them at a frequency in the range of human hearing.

So how is such a good team entry assembled? Just as in chemistry, it's a matter of combining the right elements, as four or five pupils with complementary abilities are needed to work on a bright idea. The volunteers, all in Year 8 at the time, included Toby Thorne, who is one of the youngest licensed handlers with English Nature. He knows far more about bats than our biology teachers.

This team pulled in physics buff Conagh Laslett to explain the ultrasound sensor during the presentation, and two good all-rounders - drama enthusiast Tom O'Brien and graphic artist Sybghat Rahim. All four students are PowerPoint experts.

Our presentation at the ASEconference foxed teachers and educational experts with an ultrasound quiz based on what a diurnal bat might hear Homo sapiens getting up to, before getting down to serious science. Ultrasound sensors lower bat noises by about five to six octaves, making home PCs scream. Keys and coins rattle in ultrasound far louder than one would think, and head-scratching, writing homework and chewing nuts sound like enormously magnified sandpapering of rough wood. If you have ever wondered why your pet rat gets irrationally rattled sometimes, it's probably the terrible grinding noises of your denim jeans.

Life would be quite unpleasant if we could hear these higher frequencies, especially at night. I was astonished by how loud bats sound to each other.

The average toddler tantrum is perfect peace compared to a pipistrelle bat looking for food, and a noctule bat sounds as if you are in a tin-roof shed with a giant throwing marbles on to the roof. Toby says they shout so loudly they dislocate their ears in order not to deafen themselves.

Equality of access to science activities for pupils with disabilities is an issue close to my heart, after supporting my daughter Alison, now a successful research scientist, through a long battle with ME (myalgic encephalopathy or chronic fatigue syndrome), with 100 per cent backing from University College London and the University of Newcastle. Toby is going to become just as talented a scientist, overcoming the challenge of severe visual impairment on the way.

Our own Express Yourself heat will take the form of a conference, including brailled programmes, plenty of wheelchair spaces, a sit-down lunch break, and British Sign Language as an official language of the conference, all supported by a grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

We also hope to open our bat research to more young scientists with disabilities. It's an extremely accessible project - the bat detectors lend themselves to use by researchers with visual impairments, while the Parks Trust in Milton Keynes work hard to make their land as accessible as possible to all.

* The Express Yourself conference will be on June 24 at the Open University, Milton Keynes. Contact Carol Blyth Email:

Carol Blyth is a physics teacher at Aylesbury Grammar School and was awarded Teacher of the Decade by the Centre for Science Education


* Aylesbury science club

* To apply for post-doctoral researchers to help in your school

* For information about environmental volunteering in Milton Keynes Email:


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