Digital storytelling

Cal U. students retelling region's history

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CALIFORNIA – A new locally-produced video begins with the eerie sound of wind and leads into a dramatic reading of a lyrical poem created by a German writer about the infamous Donora smog.


“The air was black and relentless,” California University of Pennsylvania honors student Corrine Dowlin said in her voice-over for the video created to promote the Donora Historical Society.




Old black-and-white images taken in Donora during the killer smog of 1948 flash across the screen showing two patients under oxygen tents in hospital beds, a U.S. Public Health Department worker interviewing a survivor of the worst U.S. pollution disaster and the steel mill nearly obscured by a blanket of fog before it closed a decade later.


“We changed the world, though we were too late to save our own,” Dowlin said, repeating the words penned in 1950 by Günter Kunert, his response to the news more than 20 people perished in the deadly fog over Donora.


The video production is among five completed for as many Mon Valley historical societies by freshman Cal U. honors students as a way for them to explore the region's rich history and provide something the groups can use to promote their collections.


The digital storytelling project is a collaboration involving the Sen. John Heinz History Center Affiliate Program in Pittsburgh and Cal U. associate professor of English Christina Fisanick. The other local videos in the project highlight California Area Historical Society's archives and Nemacolin Castle in Brownsville.


“I'm pretty pleased with what I've seen so far,” Fisanick said last month before the videos were shown at a public meeting in McKeesport.


She said she first assigned the class to produce “I am Appalachian” videos to “establish a connection to the region” and then they had to write about the experience.




Rachel Fawley of LaBelle, who also worked on the Donora video, said her team tried to shy away from telling the smog story because versions of it have been done before by many people. But, everything fell into place after the team stumbled on the smog poem and read its prophetic words.


“It was perfect,” Fawley said.


“The poem was absolutely beautiful,” added Dowlin, of Midland.


Much like the poem predicted, “the town is sort of collapsing on itself,” she said. “It's diminishing to almost nothing.”


Mary Beth Graf, president of the California society, said she was impressed to see young people take an interest in local history.


“They seemed to get a new interest in history, whether they were forced into it by their professor or not,” Graf said.


“Undergraduates at Cal U. are exploring ways to use the Internet to generate and share knowledge about their community that will reach well beyond Southwest Pennsylvania and last well beyond their college years,” added Mark Aune, director of Cal U.'s honors program.


“These students are not just learning for their own sake, they are sharing their knowledge with the world around them. This is what undergraduate research at Cal U. is all about,” Aune said.


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