Science on the fly

the-flying-scientistThe roar of Phill Higgins' Cessna 172 generates much excitement as it approaches outback stations around Australia. It's a rare treat to see a scientist in these far-flung outposts - let alone one skimming across the red earth in a plane full of science paraphernalia.

For children in isolated communities, the arrival of Mr Higgins and his teacher wife Suzanne, along with their impressive stash of expertiments, microscopes and electronics, means they are about to be treated to a science lesson like no other. The couple from Churchill, in the Latrobe Valley, add new meaning to the term School of the Air.

He is known as Phiggles the Flying Scientist. Each year the couple pack their hired plane with a host of science gadgets and, for love not money, head to the outback to share their infectious interest in the subject.

"It is exceptionally difficult to get specialised teachers to travel and teach in the harsh conditions these kids live in," Mr Higgins says.

"Some kids in the city may be underprivileged, but the schools they go to are big and should have enough financial clout to get someone who can get there in a few minutes by car or public transport."

Many of these isolated children live hundreds of kilometres away from their nearest School of the Air base and have limited access to specialist teachers.

"Quite often the mother is the teacher," Ms Higgins says. "But the trouble for the parents is that they are running the household, listening to the UHF radio, cooking for a dozen or more people three times a day and they are teaching their kids."

They are often schooled via the internet, so having a scientist drop in is not only a special treat, but also provides the chance to socialise with others their own age.

The Flying Scientist program, which has delighted more than 1300 children around Australia, started as a distraction after a family tragedy. "My eldest daughter Lisa, who I was very close to, got rare cancer and died at 24, three hours short of her 25th birthday," Mr Higgins says. "It was a couple of months before she was to be married, and cancelling her wedding was the hardest thing I have ever done."

Her death led him to reassess. He had been teaching at Monash University for 32 years, with some of that time spent as the head of the physics department at the Gippsland campus.

"I needed a change. I didn't know what, but I needed to do something different so I just took a (redundancy) package from the university," he says.

A friend directed him to a scientist-in-residence program at a Maryborough primary school. He applied for the position and found that he loved working with younger kids.

"Up until then I had only been working with 17-to-87-year-olds but I enjoyed working with the little kids and someone on the staff said, `You know, remote kids don't get specialist teachers to speak of,' and for me it was a lightbulb moment," he says.

"I thought: remote science, I could do that. I am going to go really remote. I need a plane, I need a pilot's licence, so off I went and got a pilot's licence at 56."

He set off on his first outback pilgrimage in 2000. Since then he has married Suzanne, whom he first dated in 1964. A series of events saw them drift apart, lose touch and marry other people. They reconnected more than 30 years later and married in 2001.

They have since travelled more than 72,000 kilometres visiting outback stations and School of the Air locations in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

After funding the first two trips out of his retirement package, his expenses are now met by Australia Post.

Last week the couple touched down in Longreach, Queensland, for their ninth outback odyssey. They will visit 12 stations and a small primary school in Boomi, in northern NSW, in the next six weeks.

For many students, these hands-on science sessions are their first interactive group experience.

"This opens more doors for kids. It might only be one or two steps, but with their curiosity they can go in that area," Mr Higgins says.

"Kids think that to be a scientist you have to remember so much stuff, but you don't have to. I like to impress on them that it's logic and if you use good logic you don't have to remember all that stuff . . . to see their faces light up when they logically solve scientific questions is very inspiring."

They work as a team covering a lot of ground - physics, chemistry, mechanics, optics, electronics and gravity - in the short time they spend at each post. The most anticipated activity is the dissection of an animal eye.

While the classes are geared to cater for students aged five to 10, everyone is welcome to join.

"Some stations have up to 50 people, they might even have someone who does nothing but work with horses, or motorbike mechanics, jillaroos or jackaroos, and they have children and they often come along," Ms Higgins says.

Their reputation for making science fun and simple has seen one family travel 600 kilometres each way from the Northern Territory to Western Australia to join them.

Being in the outback also means that classes are held in picture-postcard settings - under wide shady trees by a pebbled, clear creek or on the back veranda overlooking the cattle stations from 7am.

Although advances in technology have made it easier for remote children, Mr Higgins still thrives on face-to-face teaching.

"I like to watch the eyes," he says. "You can tell from the eyes whether they have understood something or not. If the eyes aren't right you explain in a different way."

After starting as a diversion from sadness in his own life, Mr Higgins is pleased his program is bringing joy to others. "I think my daughter would be as pleased as punch. She had a lot going on, she was really bright, intelligent and really beautiful. She'd be pleased and proud that I got up and had a go instead of sitting around looking at my navel."

Australia Post is featuring Mr Higgins' adventures on its website. Students can write to the flying scientist at: