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Digital Storytelling

Students pose in front of the their projects

"I didn’t know there was a castle in Brownsville,” says Emily Ritchie, a freshman in Cal U’s Honors Program.

She does now.

Ritchie, along with fellow Honors Program students Laura Owens and Ali Steiner, learned all about Bowman’s Castle, or Nemacolin Castle, while participating in a digital storytelling project.

Teams of 14 freshmen Honors Program students visited historical societies in Brownsville, California, Donora, Dormont and McKeesport to produce two videos — an overview of each society and a feature on a noteworthy artifact or collection.

The societies are members of the Senator John Heinz History Center Affiliates Program (HCAP).

At Cal U, the project was coordinated by Dr. Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English, and Dr. Gary DeLorenzo, associate professor of information technology.

Students in DeLorenzo’s classes have provided application solutions to the Heinz History Center as part of their senior capstone projects.

In their video, Owens, Ritchie and Steiner used photographs and narration to illustrate the historical significance of the castle. “I was so surprised at all the information they had on this little town,” Owens says of the Brownsville Historical Society.

Rachel Fawley and Corrine Dowlin produced a somber, dramatic video about the smog that covered the town of Donora in 1948 and killed 21 people.

Newspaper headlines and photos of steel mills and victims accompany Dowlin’s haunting narration of a poem about the tragedy by German writer Gunter Kunert.

“No one is going to forget the smog incident, but I don’t think people realize as much how the town’s population has diminished” from roughly 14,000 in the 1940s to 5,000 today, Dowlin says.

Fisanick says the project teaches skills such as writing, editing and interviewing.

“We did story circles, where students read their stories out loud and get feedback. They also learned about story arcs and how to ask dramatic questions.”

The digital storytelling project has expanded to the Manderino Library at Cal U, and to the Mt. Lebanon, Washington County and Fayette County historical societies, in addition to more work with California, Donora and McKeesport.

Students also are exploring ways to use digital storytelling techniques in careers such as education.

“Cal U's Honors Program and Dr. Fisanick have given these students a unique opportunity not just to learn about the community around them, but to share that knowledge in an innovative and accessible format,” says Dr. M.G. Aune, director of the Honors Program.

Robert Stakeley, educator and manager of HCAP, says the project benefits Cal U students’ education while increasing awareness of the region’s historical societies. 

“One of the underlying objectives of this project is to enticepeople to visit these sites, both online and in person,” he says. “We believe that once you view these stories, you’ll want to jump in your car to visit these historical societies.”

“I’m thrilled about it,” says Mary Beth Graf, president of the California Area Historical Society. “We’re a research center, but we also have mining and river boat displays. The students seemed to gain an appreciation for it.”


Other Videos

-California Area Historical Society:
     Andrew Sontag, Roman Toth, and Jacquelyn Peddiford

-Donora Historical Society-Smog Museum:
     Rachael Fawley and Corrinne Dowlin

-Dormont Historical Society:
     Tyler Harclerode, Brandon Mohney, and Aaron Morgan

-Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation:
     Emily Ritchie, Laura Owens, and Ali Steiner 

-McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center:
     Clair Harris, Julianna Aguirre, and Shannon Chilcote