School of the Air

17 Jun 2000 | The Science Show, ABC Radio National


In outback Australia the only access to education for many children is the School of the Air. During Science Week a group of scientists and journalists visited the Longreach School of Distance Education in Queensland.

Robyn Williams: Science in the Bush – by radio, by plane, in the pub. It's been an exercise in lateral thinking, and it's come off quite brilliantly. Branwen Morgan was there, having taken time off from her doctorate.


Branwen Morgan: Imagine your nearest neighbour as 100 kilometres away. Your school books arrive by mail, your lessons are conducted over a two-way radio, and your classmates are recognisable only by voice. This is the scenario for Sam, one of more than 200 Australian students enrolled in the Longreach School of Distance Education in Queensland.


Australia is the only country to conduct School of the Air, and the school in Longreach is one of the largest. Teaching children living in an area of 402,000 square kilometres. Every morning at 9.30 all the students tune in for their school assembly. They have their on-air subjects at various times during the day. But on Wednesday 10th May things are a little different.


As part of National Science Week, Kate Sullivan an English and Science teacher had invited some travelling scientists and journalists into the studio to speak with her students. I was one of this team.


So why was this bunch of people travelling around outback Australia? It all began in Sydney two years ago, when a journalist named Wilson da Silva came up with the idea of Science in the Pub. This forum was designed to get people from the public to come along and discuss scientific issues in an informal environment over a pint. The idea was so successful that Science in the Pub recently one a Eureka prize, the Logies of science for science promotion.


As an extension of this concept, Science in the Pub went outback by DC3. Journalists, scientists and educators from different disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, environmental and medical research flew around five outback towns in New South Wales and Queensland. Our objective was to talk science in bush and pub settings as well as under the stars and in classrooms.


Our on-air introductions were greeted by a chorus of good mornings, then silence while the kids waited for us to reply. It took a few minutes to get the hang of the equipment, and though the kids were familiar with the etiquette of broadcasting, we sometimes inadvertently spoke over them.


We met Sam who lives on a cattle station in South Australia. He's 12 years old and in his first year of high school. The School of the Air is Sam's only contact with other children, but he has a huge variety of pets, including a blue tongue lizard and a kangaroo. The nearest town is Leigh Creek, an old mining centre with a decreasing population. Every week Sam's family travels 170 kilometres on a dirt road to Leigh Creek to fetch their groceries, unless of course the road is flooded.


At the moment this applies to a large percentage of the roads around the NSW/Queensland desert. During our on-air session, Sam was one of the first to respond to our questions. But some of the students are too shy to call in - apart from responding to a role call. So it must be quite easy to have favourites.


I spent a few minutes talking about my research into brain signalling and the effects of substances like alcohol, before asking for questions. The moment you take your finger off the talk button you hear an echo of voices, each saying their name. It takes a trained ear to decide who is first. A bit like the buzzers on a quiz show. I was astounded by the logic and intelligence of all the questions and it was hard to sign off and say goodbye when my time was up.


This was definitely the highlight of the trip, and I still can't stop talking about my on-air experience and the enthusiasm of the long distance students.


Robyn Williams: Branwen Morgan is doing her PhD in neurology at the Garvan Institute in Sydney.