A Top End school became a finalist in the national Junior Landcare awards for its environmental monitoring, including using a drone to count seasonal changes in buffalo numbers.

Story Kirsty McKenzie

If there’s one thing Manyallaluk School principal Ben Kleinig has learnt during his 20-plus years in the classroom, it’s that sometimes the wildest notions can have the best outcomes. When Ben asked students at the school in the Aboriginal community 105km north-east of Katherine, NT, how they would like to develop their science skills, one bright spark suggested they needed a drone. The resulting body of science work earned the school the 2021 Woolworths Junior Landcare Team Award in the NT Landcare Awards and the honour of being finalists in the 2022 National Landcare Awards, which were announced in March this year.

“The education department was keen to increase the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] curriculum content,” Ben explains. “I was a bit reluctant, as I don’t feel entirely confident with my own tech skills, so I thought I might as well own it and ask the kids what they thought would help. When they came up with the drone, I thought we should run with it as sometimes the initially crazy-sounding ideas have the best results.”

The drone was duly ordered and, once it arrived, Ben, who teaches at the school with his wife Meg and two assistants from the local community, decided to put it to use by starting an aerial survey of the local buffalo population. “We needed to show the children that it was more than a cool toy,” he says. “We hit on the idea of the survey as a way to introduce some meaningful learning from the equipment. As a bonus, the process of documenting the findings was a powerful motivator for improving the kids’ reading and writing skills.”

Every Friday at 11am the entire school population of 23 students from transition to year 6 would meet outdoors to fly the drone 800m in either direction of the Kokali Creek crossing to observe how buffalo numbers changed throughout the year. “By plotting the data on a graph, the kids were learning basic scientific methodology,” Ben says. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #146

Outback Magazine: December/January 2023