History through a lens

November 13, 2015


Students make documentaries in HIST 141. Using present-day technology allows students to share pieces of the past.

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Professor Vin Clark

Students in one U.S. history class at Johnson County Community College won’t be turning in a research paper to prove what they’ve learned. They’re creating documentaries about regional history and hope to screen their projects to an eager public.

Vin Clark, professor of history, and Sam Zeff, education reporter for KCUR, are team teaching the class. Clark brings the history; Zeff provides the documentary prowess. On Monday and Wednesday, students follow the course’s curriculum using lecture, small-group discussion and other typical classroom techniques.

But on Fridays, students focus on the documentary they’re creating either alone or in small groups.

New skills for old stories

Zeff, winner of a National News and Documentary Emmy, covers education as his “day job” at KCUR. It’s his first time teaching and seeing education from another point of view.

“I love it. It’s been absolutely incredible,” he said.

This one section of HIST 141 seeks to teach two seemingly disparate skills in one class: historical research and documentary filmmaking.

For those worried that the world is becoming too visual at the expense of writing, be assured the students are still writing.

Clark said students’ writing assignments still are graded for grammar and spelling. Students still learn how to properly cite a source, too, and learn the curriculum covering United States history from 1877 to the late 20th century.

“The students are actually writing quite a bit in this class,” he said. From the outline to a cover treatment to the actual script, Clark estimates students in the class are probably writing just as much as his “normal” history classes. They just happen to be learning technology skills like video editing, too.

For love of history, video and career

For student Matthew Bettmeng, the documentary allows him to explore his love of filmmaking. Bettmeng already works as a videographer with helicopter pilot and traffic reporter Johnny Rowlands. As Rowlands shares his report, Bettmeng runs the camera providing the shots below, he said.

Bettmeng said he loves shooting video as proved by his YouTube Channel. His project focuses on the Sunflower Army Ammunitions Plant in northwest Johnson County and how it impacted World War II.

Student Demetrius Thies, partnering with three other students in the class, is creating a documentary on Naval Air Station Olathe during the Cold War. The station was located where the New Century Air Center is now operating.

Thies said he is considering a career as a news reporter. The class can help him learn skills he can use to report on the present as well as the past, he said.

The students will screen their works for each other as class ends for the semester.