Cal U. digital storytelling project makes impact on region

January 25, 2017
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Cal U. students, from left, Madie Baldwin, Jess Kovach and Sam Conklin visit the Connellsville Canteen, where they researched the fatal TWA airplane crash that occurred just outside the town in 1936.
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Cal U. students at Friendship Hill admire the statue of Albert Gallatin, the focus of their digital story. From left are Stephanie Bernd, Hayden Michael and Adam Knowlton.

When Christina Fisanick and Robert Stakeley were introduced to one another, it was the beginning of a perfect storm that led to a successful collaboration.

As an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, Fisanick has expertise in digital storytelling, media production that is used to document events and individuals. As educator and manager of the Heinz History Center Affiliates Program in Pittsburgh, Stakeley had professional connections to many local historical societies in the region as well as expertise in historical artifacts, photographs and archival material.

In 2012, the duo enlisted university students enrolled in Fisanick’s honors composition class to begin making a series of digital storytelling videos with a historical focus that involved working in cooperation with regional historical societies and sites. Seven semesters later, the project has involved close to 200 students who visited 42 different sites in two states and seven counties to produce 50 videos.

From March 9 to 12, two of the videos will be spotlighted at the Appalachian Studies Conference at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va.

“At the conference, we plan to talk about the success we’ve had going into small communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle to document their stories,” Fisanick said.

One of the two- to three-minute long digital stories, “A Town Called Donora,” focuses on one of the project’s earliest endeavors – the infamous Donora smog crisis of 1948 in which 21 people died because of noxious air pollution.

Brian Charlton, archivist for the Donora Historical Society, said that a lot of people come to him and tell him of their love of history. He said he responds by saying there’s a treasure trove of historical societies and sites in the area where they can learn more about their favorite subject.

“The project not only gives our societies a lot of public exposure, it also gives us legitimacy through our connections with the history center and Cal U. as places to go to learn and do research,” he said.

Felix Rivera, a sophomore economics major from Mt. Pocono, is one of the students who made two videos his freshman year and will be attending the Appalachian Studies Conference, where his video, “The West Virginia State Penitentiary: Through An Officer’s Eyes,” is slated to be shown. To view the video on Youtube, visit

“One of the benefits I got from the project was the ability to see things from a different perspective, one I wouldn’t normally consider,” Rivera said. “The production process also taught me a lot about the local communities I visited and helped me hone my interviewing skills.”

Each semester, students get a list of sites in a particular area that include historical societies, historic homes, churches or any site that has primary source materials. From this list, a team of two to three students picks a site that most interests them.

The next step is taking a field trip to the site to hear a local historian speak, then explore the site’s trove of artifacts to come up with a story idea. As an example, Fisanick cites a digital storytelling project in Connellsville in which students were inspired by a large coffee pot used to make hot drinks for World War II soldiers during a stopover at the town’s canteen.

“The women wanted to give the soldiers a taste of home before they continued on their journeys,” Fisanick said.

Students who are involved in the various storytelling projects are honor students who probably have research experience online or at a library, but have no experience with interviewing people or using primary sources such as photographs and artifacts.

“Digital storytelling gives them confidence and increases their writing skills,” Fisanick said. “Another project goal is to foster independent thinking and improve their research skills.”

This semester, the project will focus on Washington County, although it has already completed several storytelling videos for the historical societies of Donora, California and Washington County and the archives and special collections at California University of Pennsylvania.

“Bob (Stakeley) and I often joke that there are so many sites in our area to focus on that we could be able to continue the project until we retire,” Fisanick said

Stakeley said the local sites and historical societies realize the importance of the video recordings “because of our affiliation, we can enable them to do things they would not be able to do by themselves.”

The success of the program has engendered another outcome – a book with a working title “Digital Storytelling and Public History: A Comprehensive Guide.” Co-authored by Stakeley and Fisanick, the book by Routledge Press chronicles the experiences they’ve had over the last four years of the project and is expected to be released sometime in 2018.

“While there have been previous books with digital storytelling elements, this is the first to our knowledge that partners a large history center, a university, its students and smaller historical societies and sites working together in close collaboration,” Stakeley said.

To view some of the videos made by the students during the project, go to and

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