Smash Jam Brings Together Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and the Carnegie Science Center

By Jane Miller

Note: this project unfolded during 2014-2016.  It is an example of the learning partnerships we aim to create on behalf of youth and their teachers.

When science museum educators of the Carnegie Science Center met with language arts teachers of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, they held a long discussion searching for a title for their joint efforts.

Smash Jam eventually became the name of a workshop that combines storytelling with science, and it received one of 10 national grants that formed partnerships to creatively teach science.

“Smash Jam is a beautiful collision of a lot of skill sets,” said middle school teacher Michelle King. “It is a ‘smash-jam’ of literacy and science. We are pulling from language arts and taking the power of literacy skills and colliding them with the sciences,” said the teacher from Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School.


Intersections, a grant from the National Science Foundation, brought together museum educators of regional science centers that belonged to the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) with university sites of the National Writing Project (NWP).

“You legitimately bring art into both areas of literacy and science. It’s bridging science and art in a way that integrates science and literacy,” said Laura Roop, director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, which provides professional development training for teachers from pre-K through the university level.

Tanya Baker, is the Director of National Programs of the National Writing Project headquarters in Berkeley, California.

“Smash Jam is part of nationwide effort to link together the kinds of activities kids do in the summer, after school and outside of school on their own, with academic learning,” she said. It’s really about a return to the programs of 20 years ago.

“It’s about doing things and reflecting on the process, instead of tightly scripted performance indicators,” she said. These programs are brand new and amazing for young educators and they are a ‘We’re back’ for the educators who have been here awhile.”

The project was suggested by researchers for Inverness, an independent evaluator for programs of both NWP and ASTC. The grant stipulated an additional intersection of a regional asset that could be highlighted. Because Pittsburgh is sometimes considered “Hollywood East,” because so many movies are made there, science videos took on aspects of blockbuster movies.

Students, who met for the first time, were paired as teams. They made story boards, filmed footage in the science center exhibits—including a miniature railroad and a space station—to create two-minute videos using iPads and the iMovie app.

It took two days to go from vision to video.

Alana Kulesa is Carnegie Science Center’s Director of Strategic Education Initiatives.

“Smash Jam is designed to integrate curriculum from the sciences and English and language arts—as well as digital media,” she said. “By using film and mobile technologies to create films quickly and professionally, it enables us to have STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) experience that uses inquiry with a project they can sink their teeth into.”

Kulesa called it an intersection of people, too.

“Young people who have never met before came together from different backgrounds and very different schools. They come together as complete strangers and they share their ideas, and work together.”

The project also sponsored an intersection through a City of Learning partnership with Sprout and the Macarthur Fund to create digital badges, now used an online resume made up of digital symbols that was first used in the gaming communities.

These badges acknowledged that students have mastered academic and scientific concepts, and are capable of taking a more in-depth study. Badges also emphasize character traits, such as the “no melt down” badge for when things go wrong, said Kulesa.

A favorite badge recognizes students who “put themselves out there that begins on Day One with icebreaker activities, the director said. “For some it is uncomfortable, but in a safe environment when no one is going to be criticized or laughed at, learning happens.”

Exploring the exhibits while filming videos was a favorite aspect for many of the teen movie makers. Robert Schweizer and Liam Hartman, both home schooled seventh-graders, chose the Pittsburgh water system exhibit to film a “Lego” movie explaining the concept of friction.

The scientific concepts, including gravity and friction, were the “luck of the draw” but the movie genre was the choice of the movie makers. “We call it a mystery with a hint of comedy,” said Anthony Pouliot, a 10th grade student.

His favorite aspect? “I learned to edit and create with a partner,” he said. Their film explained gravity through the “death” of a “pet notebook” that falls from a railing in the movie.

Storyboards and filming took up Day One. Day Two was spent editing. The event ended with a premiere including popcorn and drinks. Some videos included outtakes and bloopers.

Museum educators and writing project teachers played bit parts. “This is amazing that we came together a day ago as strangers, and then created something meaningful,” said King, the Environmental Charter School teacher.

Although the grant funding has ended, “the Digital Video: Smash Jam” is offered at the Carnegie Science Center as a fee per service under the leadership of the museum staff.

“This wouldn’t have been possible, if we hadn’t had the grant to develop it,” said Kulesa. She already knows the program is a success. “We see students coming back for other programs. We know that it made an impact.”

Photos: Ben Filio/Courtesy of the Sprout Fund.

The Future of Intersections

Don’t check the theater listings, but look for Smash Jam information next summer on the Intersections page of the National Writing Project web site.

When the NWP provides the results of the 10 Intersections projects, information will be provided for the 185 networked sites of the National Writing Project to replicate these projects.

In addition to the Smash Jam project in Pittsburgh, where digital videos combined storytelling with science, collaborations across the country creatively showcased regional assets.

To mention a few, in Maine, the Bangor Writing Project partnered with a local festival that focused on science. Students created phone apps that allowed participants to text, tweet or share through Instagram about their experiences. Beta testing took place at the festival.

On the opposite side of the country, the San Diego Writing Project came together  with the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum which was about to enter an expansion. “Funding provided resources for museum guides for the new exhibits that focused on meaningful activities and interactions for before, during and after a trip to the site, said Tanya Baker, the NWP’s Director of National Programs.

A popular day during the Summer Institute for Teachers, sponsored each year by the National Writing Project sites, is the “Writing Marathon.” It is usually a walking/driving tour where participants linger to write reflections.

That inspired the Montana Writing Project to join with SpectrUM Discovery Museum to host river tours. The museum already partners with a cohort of scientists who study the river that runs through Misoula, Montana.

“Teachers wrote throughout the rivers tours led by scientists teamed with Native American guides. Thus it also fulfilled a state law to incorporate a Native American perspectives in all subject areas,” said Baker.

The Intersections project has opened up discussions for other partnerships for the future, said Laura Roop of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project. “A large conversation is happening around different partnerships when you get new ideas of what is possible.”