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Cal U program creates compelling videos

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
California University of Pennsylvania
California University of Pennsylvania honors students Laura Ownes, Ali Steiner and Emily Ritchie present their project at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, in McKeesport.

Even though Emily Ritchie grew up in Rostraver Township, she had never heard of Brownsville's historic Nemacolin Castle until she began working on a digital storytelling video this fall as a freshman at California University of Pennsylvania.

“I never knew there was a castle in Brownsville,” Ritchie, a 2013 graduate of Belle Vernon Area High School, said during the recent premiere of the video at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.

Ritchie was joined by 13 other Cal U honors students who were divided into five teams to work with historical societies in Brownsville, California, Donora, Dormont and McKeesport in producing short videos about the historical groups in those towns as well as a historical artifact or noteworthy event in those communities. The students selected the towns they wanted to feature in their videos.

Robert O. Stakeley, the Senator John Heinz History Center's educator and manager of the history center's affiliates program, said the Cal U students' digital storytelling project, a joint initiative of Cal U's honors program and the history center, has the potential for a greater impact than just highlighting the history of five communities in Western Pennsylvania.

Using technology can help “to bring these students to these (historic) sites,” Stakeley said.

“This can be a solution to all of the history center affiliates' challenge of getting young people interested and involved in local history,” said Stakeley, who oversees an affiliates program that works with 125 regional historical societies and organizations dedicated to preserving history.

Mary Beth Graf, president of California Area Historical Society, was not only pleased with the video about the town's historical society, but by the students' desire to learn about California's history.

“I get real happy when young people come into our (California Area) historical society,” Graf said.

“As soon as we did the first video, I thought this was fun,” said Andrew Sontag, who worked on the California video with Jacqui Peddicorn and Roman Toth.

Gary J. DeLorenzo, associate professor of computer information systems at Cal U, who worked with Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English on the digital storytelling project, said they would like to expand what was a pilot project.

“We would love to make them do not only five, but six, seven or eight,” DeLorenzo said.

Ritchie, who is studying to be a teacher of students in fourth to eighth grades, said she and fellow students Laura Owens and Ali Steiner selected Brownsville because it has the historic castle. Working with the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., they made a two-minute video showing photos of the Nemacolin Castle backed by narration explaining features of the 22-room castle.

Two Cal U students, Rachel Fawley of LaBelle, and Corrine Dowlin of Ohioville, Beaver County, produced a powerful four-minute video on the industrial smog that killed about 20 people in Donora in October 1948. A haunting narration and sound is complemented with photos of the smog, of people in oxygen tents and newspaper headlines about the tragedy.

“We felt it was the most powerful (topic). It's the perfect idea,” Dowlin said.

Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, praised the video.

“We pride ourselves on being an education facility,” Charlton said, and the video will help in that effort by using it in presentations.

“I think that's going to be a real treasure for us. Our motto is, ‘Clean Air Started in Donora.' It's a shame to be proud of something so tragic,” he said

The process of making these videos teaches the students skills – writing, editing, storytelling, interviewing, and many more – that they will use the rest of their lives, Fisanick said.

All 10 of the student videos are completed, but not all have been posted to the Honors Program page of the California University website, Fisanick said.

An introductory video on California and feature video on Brownsville, as well as both the introductory and feature videos on Donora are available for viewing on the Honors Program page of California University's website.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-836-5252.