Before this year’s National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in June, the largest audience 17-year-old Brian Stevenson ever had for his video projects was a class of 25 to 30 students.

So imagine how he felt when several thousand educators and other attendees at NECC’s closing ceremony watched a highlight reel of the conference that was filmed, edited, and produced entirely by Stevenson and his peers.

“That was so exciting,” said Stevenson, who will be a senior this fall at South Burlington High School (SBHS) in Vermont. “I was proud of the work I did on that highlight reel, because I was working with a new software program and, though I struggled a little at first, I was able to pick it up pretty quickly.”

Stevenson was one of six talented students who got a unique opportunity to learn firsthand from a team of professional photojournalists and video editors at NECC as part of the first-ever eSchool News Student Video Discovery Awards (SVDA) program. Now, in this story for the newspaper and via the internet, their work is being showcased for eSchool News’ entire print and online audience of some 500,000 educators and education advocates.

Sponsored by Discovery Education, with vital support from Cisco Systems, Apple Computer, Avid Technology, Macromedia, and NEC, the initiative was designed to give students greater visibility for their outstanding work in video production–as well as some valuable professional experience.

“Video journalism plays an increasingly critical role in our society today, and it is one of the fastest-growing areas of study in schools and colleges. At all levels in education nowadays, video is used both as a learning experience and a communications tool for students,” said Gregg W. Downey, editor and publisher of eSchool News.

“Recognizing this trend, [we] created this award to honor excellence in student journalism and video production, while also providing a meaningful learning experience for the winners.”

For consideration in the inaugural awards program, eSchool News asked high school and college students to submit videos they created themselves under the guidance of an educator sponsor. Entries, which could be up to 10 minutes in length, were to focus on the use of technology in the students’ school or district.

Brian Stevenson, center, conducts an interview in the NECC exhibit hall while Erik Archibald captures all the action on camera. (eSN photo by Chris Hopson)

Hundreds of students from across North America, working as teams or as individuals, submitted entries last winter. From these entries, the six judges–all professionals from the education, journalism, and video-production fields, including Ed DeLeon, the Emmy award-winning executive producer of “Assignment Discovery”–chose three deserving finalists.

Stevenson, fellow SBHS student Kyle Kelley, and their academic advisor Mike Dumont were among the winners. The others were Erik Archibald, Doug Waters, and Charles Horne from Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., and their advisor, Marilyn Stinebaugh; and Jen Campbell from Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Fla., and her advisor, Sandy Melillo.

The winners traveled to Philadelphia with the eSchool News editorial team to cover this year’s NECC and produce video news segments of conference focal points. Under the expert tutelage of professionals from Discovery, Apple, Avid, and local television station PBS 39, as well as their academic advisors, the students worked late into the night shooting film, editing clips, and producing professional-quality videos highlighting the key people and presentations at this year’s conference.

During the show, students created and posted two to three video news clips each day on the Conference Information Center section of eSchool News Online, where visitors to the site can still view the clips in QuickTime or Windows Media Player (WMP) format. The videos explore topics ranging from the Internet2 project to one of the key themes at this year’s NECC: listening to student voices.

The students’ work culminated in the creation of the 10-minute highlight reel shown at the closing ceremony of NECC on June 30.

“NECC 2005 was a richer conference this year, thanks to the participation of the winners of the Student Discovery Video Awards. They impressed NECC attendees with their work completed prior to NECC and with their work on site,” said Leslie Conery, conference chair.

It seemed appropriate that a major theme of this year’s NECC was the importance of student voices–because the SVDA project was a perfect example of how technology can be used as a tool to empower students. Using high-tech tools and with guidance from their mentors, program participants produced video news clips as good as you’d see on any local news channel.

Best of all, they had a learning experience that will last a lifetime.

“I’ve had friends who have done college internships, and they’ve ended up pushing paper and having no control. This program was great, because students really got hands-on experience with video editing in a real-life news setting,” said South Burlington academic advisor Dumont.

Northeast High’s Jen Campbell agreed: “[The SVDA program] gave me the perfect opportunity to test out my skills on a high-paced assignment. It was an amazing experience, and one of the most fun projects I have ever had the pleasure to participate in. I learned so much from the people I worked with. It’s … an experience that will have a profound effect on my career.”

Charles Horne of Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., works on Avid Xpress Pro software as he compiles footage from NECC 2005. (eSN photo by Chris Hopson)

Learning on the job

The mini-internship began with a pre-conference meeting on June 27, where the students met each other and their professional mentors.

One of the key challenges the students faced was having to work together as a team, having never met each other before. Each came from different backgrounds and contributed different strengths and experiences to the project–but how best to marshal these strengths was a task for the students to decide.

The students split up into two groups: One would focus on the daily news clips, the other on the highlight reel. The daily news group set up shop on two Apple PowerMac G5 computers equipped with Final Cut Pro Studio video-editing software. On hand to advise them as necessary was Dan DeFossey, a former classroom teacher who now works with Apple. The highlight reel group worked at a Hewlett-Packard XW8200 workstation using Avid Xpress Pro HD Studio Complete software, under the guidance of Avid’s Kate Irwin.

For cameras, the students used a Panasonic CDVA101 and two smaller Canon GL2 mini-DV units. The students shot all of the footage themselves, learning some of the tricks of the trade from photojournalists Eric Werner, Melissa Leffel, and Andrew Brett from PBS 39 in nearby Bethlehem, Pa. Brett previously worked as a cameraman for the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village.

After early-morning meetings to plan the day’s coverage, led by eSchool News Managing Editor Dennis Pierce, the students went off to record the agreed-upon events. They also planned and carried out interviews with NECC organizers, including Conery and International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) President Kurt Steinhaus and CEO Don Knezek.

Although the students already had extensive experience behind a camera, the PBS team was able to pass on some useful tips. One of these was to change the time codes for every new tape, so that instead of having all time codes begin with “00:00,” tape two would begin “02:00,” tape three would begin “03:00,” and so on. That way, it’s easier to keep track of all the footage you’ve shot, Werner explained.

The students also got an expert look at how to set up three-point lighting for formal sit-down interviews.

“I was familiar with three-point lighting, but I’d never had the chance to set it up correctly on my own,” Stevenson said. “The PBS crew went through every aspect, then let me do it for myself. They made sure that when I left, I had the knowledge and experience needed to set up the lighting on my own.”

Stevenson and the others also learned a useful technique for creating a desirable visual backdrop for the interviews: the use of a simple yellow or purple gel, or filter, with slits cut into it for the background lighting.

The students used this to good effect when interviewing Conery, Steinhaus, and Knezek on camera, as well as keynote speakers Joel Barker and Deneen Frasier Bowen. They also captured footage of the technology playgrounds, Internet2 demonstrations, and many other conference elements.

eSchool News Managing Editor Dennis Pierce, left, discusses the NECC coverage schedule with Kyle Kelley of South Burlington High School. (eSN photo by Chris Hopson)

Back at the editing room, the students captured the video to the computers for editing. They sifted through interviews for compelling sound bites, wrote scripts that narrated the news stories, and sent camera crews out to shoot more B-roll footage, or images used to illustrate or accompany voice-overs or sound bites culled from the interviews.

In one example, a crew went back out to record footage of Conery walking through the convention center. A few seconds of this footage was inserted within the clip of her interview. “The key is to try not to make it look staged,” PBS’s Werner said of shooting B-roll footage of interview subjects.

Then the really intensive editing process began. Using the software at their disposal, students worked long and hard matching words with images and music. (In the conference highlight video, for example, as Conery says something about attendees taking technology to the next step, viewers get a shot of people’s feet as they walk through the crowded exhibit hall.)

The final phase to producing the daily news clips was recording stand-ups by the anchor in front of the camera. That job fell to SBHS’s Kelley, who was the sharpest-dressed of the bunch. Though he had very little experience in front of the camera, Kelley quickly learned on the job, rapidly memorizing large chunks of information to introduce or wrap up the news clips.

It wasn’t always a smooth process–but part of what made the program such a valuable experience was that students were allowed to make, and learn from, their own mistakes.

“I learned that on the highlight reel, we didn’t spend enough time on storyboarding up front,” acknowledged Stevenson. The students were up until 4 a.m. the night before the highlight video was to be completed, frantically trying to finish on time. As a result, Stevenson used a few hours of downtime the next morning to nap under a table in the editing room. “Now, I know I need to spend more time in pre-production,” he said.

Invaluable experience

In a break from the rigor of their responsibilities, the six students and their educational advisors were honored in an invitation-only ceremony at NECC June 29.

At the awards ceremony, the students received free video equipment and prizes worth more than $50,000 for themselves and their schools. The prizes, all donated by corporate sponsors, included:

  • Six copies of Macromedia Flash MX Professional 2004;
  • Three copies of Macromedia Studio MX 2004 with Flash Professional;
  • Nine Avid Xpress Pro software packages;
  • Three 17-inch iMac G5 computers with SuperDrive;
  • Nine copies of Apple’s Production Suite Academic software; and
  • Cisco Systems is flying the winners to its corporate headquarters in San Jose, Calif., to show them its multimedia studio.

Even more valuable to the students than these generous prizes, however, was the experience they gained reporting on the conference.

“I came here primarily with editing skills, and I’ll leave with a lot more reporting and technical experience,” said SBHS’s Kelley. “I’m really excited that I now feel equipped with the tools to do more than just edit film.”

“What I found most impressive about this experience was the high expectations that [were] set for the students–and how [the program] provided the support for students to meet them. The PBS and Discovery crew treated the students as professional equals, and I think that made the kids rise to the occasion, giving them a real-life career experience in broadcast journalism,” Melillo said.

Jen Campbell of Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Fla., said the SVDA program “gave me the perfect opportunity to test out my skills on a high-paced assignment.” (eSN photo by Chris Hopson)

She concluded: “The kids seemed to thrive on, rather than tire from, the hard work. The realization that everyone had a skill to add to the group brought a camaraderie among the staff and students that was strong and certainly productive.”

Links:

NECC video coverage
http://www.eschoolnews.com/vrc/video.cfm

Discovery Education
http://www.discovery.com

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

Avid Technology Inc.
http://www.avid.com

Macromedia Inc.
http://www.macromedia.com

NEC Corp.
http://www.nec.com