FPU classroom provides interactive resource


University plans to expand videoconference presentations

By Wayne Steffen for FPU

The father of the California missions is having technical difficulties.

Its 9:56 a.m. Father Junipero Serra is fiddling with the wireless microphone under his priestly robes as the fifth grade class at the Blythe Academy of Language in Greenville, SC, wait.

“We’ll start in four minutes,” he says. “Time travel is tough.”

With seconds to go in the basement of Kriegbaum Hall at Fresno Pacific University, Father Serra is hooked up.
“Are you ready to begin?” he asks the children on the other side of the continent. Then, he launches into his life story and all that it means to American history.

Welcome to “Father Serra and the California Missions: Let the Adventure Begin.”

Father Serra and California missions

Father Serra talks about growing up in Petra, Majorca, off the coast of Spain in the early 1700s, coming to the western part of New Spain (part of the Spanish empire in North America including Mexico, California and the Southwestern states) in 1749 at age 27 and building the first nine of the 21 California missions.

With a full head of brown hair and a beard, he bears little resemblance to his Wikipedia picture, yet he exudes knowledge and enthusiasm. “I’m so famous,” he says.

Every time Father Serra describes a new mission opening a bell sounds in the studio. “I love that,” he says, closing his eyes and looking to the heavens. “It’s my favorite sound.”

Behind the lights, Father Serra sees his audience through a monitor and hears them through the now-functioning microphone. Hanging from the bottom of the camera are the points of his presentation—any 299-year-old could be excused for needing notes.

But this isn’t a lecture. Father Serra has the children participate, such as naming the challenges he faced crossing the Atlantic. When some call out “Storms!” he says “Good answer” and behind him they see a picture of a ship riding a wave through heavy weather. A photograph of what appears to be a giant black widow appears when Serra describes being bitten by a spider. Thanks to an overhead camera, the fifth-graders can watch as he makes adobe, the building blocks of the missions, using a Clifford juice box as a mold.

Behind the control board, Janet Adams of the FPU Office of Continuing Education matches the illustrations to the script and audience responses, choosing from 150 slides and other resources culled from sources from Scholastic Publishers to YouTube. She also gestures to Father Serra so he doesn’t block the maps, paintings and photographs. For, though the students see them clearly right behind Father Serra, all he sees when he looks to the side or over his shoulder are the green walls, green ceiling and green floor of the studio.

What’s going on is a videoconference—essentially a live TV show where the audience talks back. The program is the result of a collaboration of the Fresno Pacific offices of continuing education, university communications and information technology.

Interactive learning

The project is the brainchild of Matt Gehrett, director of the Office of Continuing Education. His plan was for FPU to be part of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. The not-for-profit organization provides interactive resources for students from kindergarten through college, as well as professional development programs. Find Father Serra at cilc.org/search/content-provider-program.aspx?id=4528.

On the CILC website, visitors can search for programs by subject and providing organization. Each program has a page featuring a written description and list of objectives, the grade-levels it’s designed for, the national and state education standards it applies to and links to the sponsoring organization. The FPU page also posts a video summary of the presentation and the university.

The university is in the company of the Smithsonian Institution, NASA and more. “There are poets, there are authors, there are all sorts of people,” Gehrett says.

The California Missions was a natural first program since its unique to CILC and learning about the missions is a fourth-grade standard in California. Gehrett points out, however, that the program’s appeal has been wide: to the East Coast as well as the west and in retirement centers as well as classrooms. “So it’s not just kids,” he says.

The plan is to develop five or six presentations. Next on the drawing board are the Pony Express and the telegraph.

Putting together the Father Serra and any subsequent presentations is the job of Janet Adams, learning director in continuing education. A former public-school educator and award-winning videographer in the Valley, she joined FPU in June 2011.

When creating, Adams starts with the need. Before starting on Father Serra, Adams spent eight weeks interviewing educators and doing research. The California missions were the most common request from teachers. “I knew this was going to be very popular,” she says.

From storage closet to studio

The potential for videoconferencing is huge. “This little studio right here could become FPU’s live classroom to the world,” Adams says.

Four years ago this “little studio” was a storage closet. FPU Multimedia Producer Mark Royce saw more than a place to keep discarded file cabinets and broken chairs. With the help of the facilities management staff, he built a green room studio, where performers can appear to share the same space as visuals—like giant spiders and ships battling storms. “We had the studio in place and Matt brought in the videoconferencing capability,” Royce says.

There followed three months of trial and error as staff members got the many components to talk to each other. “There was no pre-made plan on how to design this,” Royce says. “We had to put it together from scratch.”

FPU now has a broadcast-quality studio, including polyconferencing equipment linking cameras in the studio with those across the country so Father Serra and the audience can see one another and a tricaster that switches cameras to, for example, an overhead view of Father Serra making adobe.

The tool that sets FPU apart—that creates Adams’ “live classroom to the world”—is called a “bridge.” Made by Vidyo, it does as its name implies, connecting FPU’s equipment to, not only other brands of videoconferencing gear, but to computers, iPads and other common, low-cost, personal devices.

Classrooms and other sites that receive the broadcast do not need costly special equipment. “It opens to us the possibilities for places all over the world to connect to us without really expensive systems,” says Alan Ours, vice president of institutional technology and chief information officer. “It allows anyone with an iPad or a computer with a webcam to connect to us.”

“We’re producing a live TV show, and the destinations can interact,” adds Royce. “We’ve added a higher level of value that gives the end-user a richer experience.”

“Who are you?”

It's 10:56 a.m. and today’s presentation of “Father Serra and the California Missions: Let the Adventure Begin” is winding down. Father Serra asks once more for questions and several fifth-graders pipe up with the same one: “Who are you?”

Maybe the students noticed the khaki slacks under the father’s robe or that the cross around his neck shone more like glitter than gold. Perhaps they’re perplexed because Father Serra closes his talk with “and then, on August 28, 1784, I died.” The man with the brown hair and beard comes clean. “You can call me Mr. Engstrom,” he says.

When Corey Engstrom isn’t pretending to be the father of the California missions, he’s youth pastor at Kingsburg Community Church. He and wife Lissa Founded and operate E & E Performing Arts, a community theater.

A couple of threads came together to tie Engstrom to the project. One was running into his old fourth-grade teacher in a restaurant. That teacher was Janet Adams. Another was the master’s degree in online communication he’s working on through Gonzaga University. His subject? Interactive videoconferencing and K-12 teaching. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to be involved in this, especially from the ground up,” he says.

Engstrom worked with Adams to research the subject and draw up a storyboard. “Once I knew the material, it was like preaching a sermon. I have a basic outline, then I have to think outside the box,” he says.

Presentations are always structured on introducing a concept, building rising action, then a climax and resolution. “We really wanted to tell a story, for the kids to be engaged,” Engstrom says.

Twenty-first century technology, an 18th century priest who made history that matters today and the oldest form of communication of all—a story. An adventure, indeed.


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