EUGENE — When Donna DuBois' fourth- and fifth-grade students started their class projects last year at Camas Ridge Elementary School in south Eugene, the kids did not initially grasp that their efforts would spark such interest beyond the classroom.
But when Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy showed up to learn more about it, they realized this wasn't an ordinary assignment, the kind that's heavy on personal effort, then graded by a teacher, tucked away and forgotten.
This project has staying power.
The students selected 20 downtown sites, researched their historical significance, tracked down old photos, then wrote a script and married the images with voice recordings that tell a succinct story of the city, its present and its past.
The digital stories, each just a couple of minutes long, are available on the Internet, but the kids went one better than that. They created QR, or quick response tags — barcodes for smartphones that will allow people instant access to the historical information just by holding their phone up to the barcode image.
In coming weeks, thanks to the help of local businesses, signs will be appearing at the 20 historical places, from the train station to the post office and the Fifth Street Public Market. The signs will have the QR tags so people doing walking tours will be able to instantly see the historic pictures and hear the students' descriptions.
Curious about the Smeed Hotel? The students combined old pictures with great snippets about the Willamette Street building's history, including the fact that Smeed at one point added an "E" to the end of the hotel name to make it look fancier before thinking better of it and dropping it.
And the Shelton McMurphy Johnson house built in 1888? The digital story mentions Alberta Shelton, who grew up in the house and was described in a newspaper article in 1895 as Eugene's first "lady cyclist."
Each story teases to another one. The historic train station narrative suggests viewers check out the downtown post office story, where they will learn who owned the first Cadillac in Lane County.
The students had help on the project from David Funk of Bell & Funk Research, Chris Meeker of the Imagine Group, Travel Lane County, the city of Eugene, and the Lane County Historical Society.
DuBois, their teacher, came up with the idea, thanks to inspiration from the New Learning Institute's Model Classroom program at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C, which provided ongoing advice along the way. "Their whole theme is using technology in this community-based service way to give students meaningful work," DuBois said.
Several of the students involved in creating the digital stories have been asked to talk about their efforts, recently at an open house at Camas Ridge and the month before at a digital learning day at Madison Middle School.
For Evan Henderson, 10, the fun was in finding the historic photographs, and uncovering fascinating bits of Eugene history.
For example, in one record of the city written by Jonathan Pincus, Evan discovered that he and his classmates weren't the first students to come up with a helpful downtown project. Back in 1887, Eugene students had trouble delivering gift baskets to needy families because the city streets had no street signs. According to Pincus, the students salvaged tin cans, painted them white and then printed street names on them in black, creating the city's first street signs. "That was so cool," Evan said.
For student Jessie McCann, 11, the fun came in doing the voiceovers.
And for McKenzie Carrier, 10, it was the group involvement. "It felt to me like our whole class was part of this thing, and it felt really special that we were the ones who were able to do it," she said.