Henson relayed students' questions to a geologist (left) and coal company officials down in a western Kentucky mine.
Kentucky ETV's electronic field trip to a coal mine
Students hear about key industry from deep in a mineshaft
Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995
By Karen Everhart Bedford
Kentucky ETV recently took more than 12,000 schoolchildren on a field trip to a place their teachers could never arrange for them to go--a coal mine 275 feet below the earth.
Putting a local twist on a trendy new form of instructional television--electronic field trips to sites that fit into the curriculum better than the travel budget--KET's excursion informed kids in grades 4-7 about an industry that's vital to the state's economy and eager to promote itself as high-tech, safer than ever before, and beneficial to society.
"Coal mining is a much different occupation than it was 20 to 30 years ago," said Danny Wooten, one of the mine managers who appeared in the KET telecast. Pre-taped segments on surface mining, land reclamation, safety procedures and high-tech mining machinery illustrated that point.
The one-hour field trip, transmitted Dec. 5 on KET's Star Channels satellite system to 400 classrooms across the state, also featured computer animation of how coal was formed and descriptions of how it is converted to electricity.
Live portions of the broadcast originated from the Dotiki Coal Mine in western Kentucky. In a hard hat and coveralls, KET's Mary Henson descended into the mine and, standing in front of a conveyor belt, interviewed a geologist, surface miners, underground miners, and utility officials about the coal industry. School children phoned-in or e-mailed their own questions.
"It was a way to show Kentucky school kids the inner workings and importance of one industry that really is Kentucky--coal," said Craig Cornwell, KET production director. Since regulations prohibit anyone under 18 from entering underground coal mines, the field trip gave students an experience they couldn't have had in person.
The broadcast presented an "interesting technological challenge," Cornwell added. The crew had to undergo safety training and don the safety equipment. "Miles of cable" were strung from KET's truck into a mine shaft, and students' calls were routed to the mine through the state network's headquarters more than a hundred miles away.
The Kentucky Coal Marketing and Export Council, an industry group that advises the governor on coal issues, provided funding for the field trip through a special earmark from the state legislature for coal education. Other components being developed for the $100,000 project are three videos and a CD-ROM to be produced by Western Kentucky University.
In addition, KET is providing links to more coal information on its World Wide Web home page. Developing this component of the project "made us all see the potential and how using the web site and the Internet can expand a project and give students so much more information," said Liz Hobson, KET education director, who produced the electronic excursion with Cornwell.
Thinking about coal in a new way
Coal mining is a $4 billion industry in Kentucky that employed about 95,500 people statewide in 1994, according to the council.
With mechanization, the industry has improved its efficiency and become more safe, according to Bill Bowker, executive director. But now it faces another challenge: new Clean Air Act regulations governing sulfur dioxide emissions have reduced the demand for coal from western Kentucky, which has a higher sulfur content than that found in Wyoming and the state's eastern regions.
"We're not sure what the final effect is going to be," said Bowker. "We've seen some market loss to real low sulfur coal from Wyoming." He described Kentucky's coal industry as a major advantage for its economic development because it provides 96 percent of the state's electricity at very low cost.
"KET did a very tasteful job of trying to represent to these 10- and 12-year-olds what coal mining is all about," said Alan Boswell, operations manager of the Dotiki Coal Mine. "While some would say it's too little too late, these kids who were in our audience were the future leaders of our state and were viewing coal mining in a much different light than they'd ever seen it before. We feel like that's a positive step in the right direction."
Any viewer expecting an investigative report on mine safety and scarred landscapes or history lesson on labor wars would be disappointed by the field trip. The program described reclamation and safety efforts without going into past or present controversies.
"In trying to replicate a field trip you have a whole different mindset than trying to do a balanced documentary," Henson added. The objective is to "take kids to a place they've never been before to see the things that people are willing to show them." By allowing the kids to ask any question, and relying on teachers to "raise any issues they want to raise" in supplementary lessons, educators can "take it to whatever level they want to take it."
Staging the complex broadcast required producers to work closely with the industry that they were explaining to schoolchildren. Although KET retained editorial control, coal officials expressed preferences about the kinds of things they were interested in having covered.
"They reviewed the script for content and they were very helpful," said Henson, who acknowledged initially being "leery" of the request. "There were a lot of things we didn't say correctly. They never asked to change anything for image reasons."
"A field trip to a coal mine is a field trip to a coal mine," said Ginny Fox, executive director of KET. "As long as we deal with the facts there's no editorial integrity question. We deliberately set out to deal with those issues in which we could give just the facts."
"This made one of the largest industries in the state accessible to kids," said Fox. "It gave them a chance to see applied technology, to see why studying math and understanding computers is important."
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