Oct 12 2006

School Project Uses Technology To Bring The Past Back To Life

Students at Arkansas secondary schools create a multimedia project to document what life was like in their state’s World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps.

When Gladys Inouye left Rohwer, Ark., in 1943, two years after the United States entered World War II, she thought she would never again see the town that housed the Japanese-American internment camp in which her family had been detained for 10 months.

“It was wrong to incarcerate U.S. citizens without due process and without legal representation,” says Inouye, who was 15 when her family was relocated from Southern California to that isolated corner of Arkansas. “However, the important thing now is to learn from this chapter in our history so that these mistakes will never be tolerated in the future.”

The retired nurse, now in her 70s, is pleased to learn that some Arkansas students have taken her words to heart.

Through Arkansas’ Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) Initiative, a statewide IT venture that has developed a hands-on project-based curriculum, students at Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School in Little Rock are developing a multimedia project that examines life in Japanese-American internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The project, Arkansas’ Forgotten, details the experiences of internees through film, 3-D images, computer-aided design (CAD) and Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping.

“Our students have been on an incredible journey this past year, a journey that has touched their hearts and souls,” says Rick Washam, Horace Mann’s EAST facilitator and the faculty coordinator for the project. “They have viewed a tragic part of America’s history from firsthand accounts, and they have resolved to make sure it never happens again.”

Life Interrupted

The EAST project, which was born of the union of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Life Interrupted: The Japanese-American Experience in WWII Arkansas project, uses the past to engage students, says Kristin Mann, an associate professor in UALR’s history department.

“I think it’s a subject in which they have become engrossed,” says Mann, who’s also the education director for Life Interrupted, a documentary Web site. “History has come alive for them, and they’ve become passionate about telling these stories.”

Since it’s a two-hour drive from the school in Little Rock to the relocation sites, Horace Mann’s Washam knew that his students could do only half the work required to make the project a complete success. So he called in reinforcements. Last summer, they began working on the virtual reality portion of the project with students from Fountain Hill High School in Fountain Hill, Ark.

Keturah West, the former EAST facilitator at Fountain Hill, recalls that her students were excited about the opportunity to assist in such a historic undertaking. “I threw it out on the table, and they jumped on it,” says West, who was contacted by Washam last spring about participating in the project.

Because Fountain Hill is only 30 minutes from the internment camp sites in Jerome and Rohwer, West’s students had unprecedented access to what was left of the forgotten WWII connections. They interviewed the current landowner, who showed them the site’s remains. The students then used GPS technology to gather data points for the mapping portion of the project.

Seventeen-year-old David Titsworth, who headed the group’s virtual reality team, says that he was unaware of the history that had taken place in his own backyard. “I’ve probably been through there 20 or 30 times, and I had never heard of it,” Titsworth says of the sites. He adds that it was a unique learning experience “to actually see how we’ve grown as a nation.”

Up Close and Virtual

The highlight of the Arkansas’ Forgotten project is the virtual reality portal, which lets users pop a CD into their computers and take a tour of the sites. The CD features old photos of internees, a GPS map of the sites and information on legislation relating to the camps.

“The virtual reality re-creations of the barracks were really interesting,” notes UALR’s Mann. “The amount of primary source material that these students have been working with is almost overwhelming, and the fact that they can make sense of it in these electronic formats is very impressive.”

To complete this ambitious endeavor, the students from Horace Mann and Fountain Hill met with the former mayor of a nearby town, who had inherited more than 300 pieces of original artwork created by children in the camps. Members of the team photographed the memorabilia and converted the images to a digitized format.

“The students are poised, well-informed and incredibly adept with technology,” Mann adds.

Titsworth, who plans to minor in information technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says it was the project’s potential impact that first attracted him. “It seemed to be the project that would have the largest impact on the biggest number of people,” he explains. “I knew it was going to have a great effect, not just in my community, but in the curriculum for the public school students.”

The students hope to eventually create an entire virtual internment camp that users can tour on the Web.

“I think this project has had a profound effect on the students,” says West, who recently started an EAST lab in the neighboring Monticello School District. “It’s been amazing to watch the students blossom, and it’s created a lot of public awareness in our small community.”

Involved Students

So far, more than 50 students from Horace Mann and Fountain Hill have participated in the project. Horace Mann’s Washam says he will continue to encourage students to participate until the project is complete.

“They not only believe they can make a difference, but they have embarked on a journey to actually do it,” he says. “Sometimes, when they tell the story of the injustices in America’s past, you forget they are only 13 and 14 years old.”

Inouye agrees. She was touched by the students’ commitment to telling the story of former internees. “The extent of their research and their eagerness to learn even more from our wartime experiences was very gratifying,” Inouye says.

Fourteen-year-old Esther Im, a ninth grader at Little Rock’s Parkview Arts Science Magnet High School, was instantly intrigued by the project. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Im, who began working on the documentary, Arkansas’ Forgotten: Japanese Internment Camps, during this past school year. “This has really opened my eyes and made me realize there are so many things that stay hidden in our history.”

Aaron Campbell, who also worked on the documentary, says the perseverance of the internees inspired him. “I was amazed by the determination and forgiveness of the internees,” says Campbell, who is 14 and attends Little Rock Central High School. “I wish I had as strong a character as they did.”

Campbell and Im’s teammate, Kaitlin Kilbury, says the project has given her a greater appreciation both for national history and for her own state’s checkered past. “When I started this project I didn’t know how many camps there were or that there were two right here in Arkansas,” says the 14-year-old freshman at Little Rock Central High.

The students hope to have their documentary included in the Education Departments’ Arkansas History curriculum.

For other students, the project has broadened career interests. “[Arkansas’ Forgotten] has increased my interest in technology-related careers because the tools available in the 21st century set no limits on what is attainable,” says Cyrus Bahrassa, Horace Mann’s GPS guru.

This month, a group of students who worked on the project will attend a conference sponsored by the UALR and JANM, which brings together veterans, former internees and community members to discuss civil rights issues.

Aiesha D. Little is the associate editor of CDW·G’s Ed Tech magazine.

Finding the Funding ... With Help From Students

Financing a project like Arkansas’ Forgotten isn’t easy. But with a little help from state and local sources, the students and their Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) advisors have found funding in all the right places.

“We applied for several grants before someone believed in our students,” recalls Rick Washam, EAST facilitator at the Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School. “The assumption was that they were too young. My words of wisdom to teachers is to keep knocking on doors until someone opens them.”

So far, the Arkansas’ Forgotten project has received roughly $25,000 in grants from area agencies including the Arkansas State Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock.

“There is money out there,” says Keturah West, the former EAST facilitator at Fountain Hill High School. “You just have to look—and be creative.”

Hands-on projects that directly involve the population they’re meant to serve seem to carry more weight in the funding process, West explains. And students may be the key to winning over the folks handing out the funds.

“I’ve found that students have more luck with grants,” she adds. “It makes more of an impression when students are the ones working on projects.”