Students enter nuclear reactor on futuristic NSW school excursion


The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility is located on a four-site campus in Lucas Heights, south-west of Sydney CBD. It houses Australia’s only nuclear reactor and acts as a gateway to a whole new world of science for more than 17,000 visitors each year.

ANSTO is Australia’s nuclear centre of excellence and one of the nation’s largest public research organisations, with a mandated role to advise the Australian Government on all nuclear and science technology matters. ANSTO also operates across other sectors, for example authenticating museum artefacts with radio-dating and nuclear imaging techniques.

School excursions to ANSTO get kids out of the classroom and drop them head-first into an educational experience that provides an opportunity for students to delve into the fascinating realm of nuclear science.

About ANSTO: a hub of scientific discovery

ANSTO is a federal government agency, and, according to its education team, it’s dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge about the full spectrum of work, research and innovation undertaken in order to improve the quality of Australian life.

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Discovery Centre Team Leader Rod Dowler told The Bursar, “We’re a leading scientific organisation and we also make the majority of Australia’s new medicines, which almost everyone will use at some stage of their life”.

The development of new radiopharmaceuticals has resulted in major advances in the field of nuclear medicine, theragnostics, diagnostics, and therapy, and ANSTO is part of this frontier research in Australia. Guided tours and excursions are available for members of the public and years three to 12, as well as university and TAFE student groups.

Primary school excursions

Science At Work is ANSTO’s primary school excursion program, suitable for years three to six. The focus is on the different environments scientists work in and the vital role they play in society.

Redeemer Baptist School teacher Jenelle Seaman has been bringing students to ANSTO for 40 years and credits it with teaching both herself and her students something new with every visit.

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“ANSTO is unique, there’s nowhere else in Australia like it. The OPAL reactor is the only nuclear reactor in Australia. The instrumentation attached to the reactor, involved in the research, are all “one-offs”, found nowhere else in the world,” she told The Bursar.

Secondary school excursions

ANSTO’s secondary school tours are designed to support students’ understanding of nuclear science and technology in line with modules of the NSW curriculum.

Year seven to 10 students are offered an Introduction to Nuclear Science workshop which begins with a presentation from ANSTO scientists and can include demonstrations and hands-on activities.

Year 11 students have the option of taking a chemistry tour that covers the nuclear-related components of Module 1: Properties of Structure and Matter.

The year 12 Investigating Science tour and in-depth study guide covers the nuclear-related components of Module 6: Technologies and Module 8: Science and Society.

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ANSTO’s year 12 physics tour addresses the nuclear-related components of Module 8: From the Universe to the Atom.

A year 12 Earth and Environmental Science tour includes specific knowledge and understanding content from Module 5: Earth Processes, Module 6: Hazards, and Module 7: Climate Science.

  • all programs include a site tour of ANSTO’s facilities and workbooks for each student
  • groups of up to 80 can be accommodated
  • cost per student is $12.50 (teachers are free)
  • students are not permitted to bring digital devices on-site
  • videoconference options are available

“The ANSTO Education Team has always been friendly, supportive, flexible and extremely helpful, accommodating different schools and their individual needs,” Ms Seaman told The Bursar. “They have produced many resources that are freely available and closely linked to the syllabus outcomes for the subjects being covered.”

Heathcote High School Head of Science Patty Karanikolas adds that, “Ultimately, our students have gained valuable lessons from their participation in the hands-on and engaging opportunities presented by ANSTO and we always look forward to upcoming events that our school can be a part of to foster our students’ passion for science”.

Step inside Australia’s only nuclear reactor

ANSTO operates OPAL, one of the world’s most modern nuclear research reactors, as well as a comprehensive suite of neutron beam instruments at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering; the Australian Synchrotron; the National Imaging Facility Research Cyclotron; and the Centre for Accelerator Science.

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“We are very lucky to have a resource like ANSTO so close to our school, offering multiple opportunities to engage our students and foster their passion for science,” said Ms Karanikolas.

“ANSTO educators have provided our students with experiences that have helped solidify their understanding of scientific concepts and their real-world applications through various excursions and competitions,” she said.

Globally, ANSTO is a prominent voice in the field of nuclear science and technology, and Ms. Seaman is passionate about raising its profile so more Australian students can gain access to the facility, and the depth of knowledge of the scientists working within it.

“If scientists around the world want to use our facility students should have the privilege of seeing it for themselves, and maybe even obtaining employment there one day,” she says.

The prospect of entering a nuclear reactor or standing next to a particle accelerator may thrill some and perturb others, but, according to ANSTO, their management systems are designed to ensure the safety of employees and visitors, and to minimise the impact of the facility’s activities on the environment.

“The media would have the general public believe that anything nuclear is too dangerous, but our students need to be informed by the science and not by the media. The students that I take to ANSTO leave knowing that it is one of the safest places in Australia,” Ms Seaman says. “These students will be voting for policies one day. Their decisions need to be based on facts, not hysteria.”

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Professional development for teachers

ANSTO regularly offers online and in person Professional Development (PD) for teachers. The Teaching Stage 5 Science PD course builds teacher understanding of the benefits and challenges of producing nuclear medicines. ANSTO scientists and course facilitators also model new ways to teach year nine and 10 students about isotopes and radioactivity using ICT, real data and science inquiry skills.
ANSTO’s Energy from the nucleus PD program introduces new ways to teach medical radiopharmaceuticals and nuclear fission. The workshop explores hands-on activities that can be employed to help students examine the fundamental physics behind the production of medical radioisotopes, nuclear stability, fission chain reactions, and radioactive decay using authentic science data to determine the half-life of medical radioisotopes.

These activities address content from VCE Physics Unit 1 Area of Study 2, as well as ICT skills, critical and creative thinking, and problem-solving.

“I am always amazed at how many teachers are not aware of such an important facility. The guides are passionate, informative and always have plenty of stories to keep students interested,” Ms Seaman says.

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.