First person: Making the journey from oral history project to WILL documentary
Alexx Engles, now a sophomore, conducts an interview for her subfreshman oral history project in 2006. A group of eight Uni students, including Engles and classmate Maritza Mestre, worked with WILL AM-580 to produce an hourlong radio documentary based on the project. The show will air 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Nov. 23. Photo courtesy WILL (click to enlarge)
Published: Friday, November 9, 2007 - 11:11pm
STRETCHABLE ELECTRONICS, SUPERCOMPUTERS, computer-speech recognition, parallel programming, middle ear power analyzers, and maps of cells are topics University of Illinois scientists work on daily.
In the spring of 2006, Uni High’s Class of 2010 learned about these topics and many more when they interviewed 15 members of the U of I’s scientific community about their lives and work.
Their stories will be presented in “Widgets and Digits: Technological History, Research and Invention at the University of Illinois,” an hourlong radio documentary created by Uni students in collaboration with station WILL AM-580 in Urbana. The program will air 5 p.m. Saturday and a second time at 2 p.m. on Nov. 23.
The program evolved out of the Class of 2010's subfreshman oral history project. Eight Uni students worked with AM-580's Dave Dickey and former Uni subfreshman teacher Jenny Yi Kim to produce the documentary out of more than 15 hours of interviews.
Current senior Ruth Welch served as executive producer. Fellow sophomore Maria Gao and I were producers and narrators. Our classmates Sindha Agha, Katherine Allen, Alexx Engles, Rachel Harmon, and Linda Ly worked as editors.
HOW IT BEGAN
I first became involved in “Widgets and Digits” as a subfreshman. As subbies, all students are required to participate in the oral history project, which involves learning about another approach to history. Students prepare and conduct interviews of the people who serve as primary sources of information about that year’s topic.
Kim, the subbie history teacher at the time, showed the class examples of previous projects and assigned practice interviews in class and at home. This really made me see how useful, interesting, and exciting oral history can be.
As the project progressed and the interviews were conducted I was amazed at how exhilarating it was to learn so much about a person. My interviewee, Harold Lopeman, worked on supercomputers at the U of I. Lopeman had many interesting stories that I had not expected to hear.
This showed me how there is more to history than just the dry facts: It’s what happens behind the scene that is most interesting. Therefore, when the opportunity to help see the project to the next stage arose, I knew I wanted to get involved.
Kim presented the class with the opportunity to intern at WILL's Campbell Hall. Interns would edit the interviews and compile the final project. If successful, interns would then have the opportunity to continue on to help produce projects in later years.
The opportunity intrigued me, and after I had completed the application process, I was selected as an intern along with six of my classmates (Agha, Allen, Engles, Gao, Harmon, and Ly).
PRODUCING THE PROGRAM
As an intern, I began working at Campbell Hall during the summer before my freshman year. There had been an introductory meeting earlier that spring. At the meeting, interns were assigned interviews to listen to and edit, and we learned more about interning at WILL. Over the summer, each intern listened to two interviews and marked areas that seemed interesting for the first cut.
The next step in the project was editing the interviews. WILL’s Dickey, the project director, instructed us on how to use the audio editing software. Editing the interviews included listening to the recordings multiple times and copying sections of interest onto a different “track.”
Further editing was done on the parts that made the first cut. That stage of editing entailed eliminating repeated words, pauses, and stutters. I myself am not technologically literate, but using the software was fairly simple. Despite occasional aggravation, the ins and outs became clear once I had enough experience with the software.
My responsibilities as an intern then included chunking similar topic areas together. These topic blocks were then put together with other topic blocks to create the full program.
The next step was to write the script and voice and produce the program, which I did with Gao. Music was then downloaded to accompany the program and pieced together with the narrative and interviews.
Once we had all of the audio in one place, it was time to eliminate 20 minutes worth of material to meet the 59-minute limit. Out of the interview material we had to choose from, more than 14 hours were not used.
After volume adjustment (a very tedious process) the project was near ready to air. This entire process took more than a year to complete, but afterward all that was left was recording and making the previews to play prior to the airdate.
EXPLORATION AND INVENTION
The Class of 2010’s oral history project topic was technology at the U of I. It explored the childhoods of some of the U of I’s brilliant researchers and scientists, and the role models these individuals had growing up.
The project discussed the educations the scientists received from grade school to graduate school. It also chronicled the research the scientists conducted, the processes they used to find results, the obstacles they faced, and their advice for future scientists.
A main part of the technology program was a look at the types of cutting-edge research that occur at the University every day. I was amazed by the extent of exploration and invention occurring on the U of I campus.
From roll-up electronic newspapers to intelligent hearing aids, the wealth of innovation and discovery that goes on at the U of I is remarkable. The topics the interviewees address are ones many people have never heard of and of much interest and value to users and listeners alike.
The enthusiasm the scientists have toward their work is incredible. No matter how many times I listen to the interviews, I always catch something new and interesting that I previously did not notice. The advice and stories the interviewees share convey a scientific community with an understanding of knowledge and research that I had never realized.
The 15 interviews combine to create a colorful look at technology as it occurs in Urbana-Champaign. Living in such a scientifically acclaimed community, I hear about the accomplishments of the University all the time. It was learning about the scientists behind the research and invention and how they see their impact on society — as well as the motivation behind their work — that interested me.
“Widgets and Digits” opens a door into the world of great minds at the University of Illinois. It’s a program many can enjoy and learn from, and expresses a topic that deserves to be listened to.
My entire experience with the internship has been rewarding. I’ve enjoyed being part of the process it takes to produce a program, especially one I’ve been involved with since its inception.
Working at a radio station and learning from people so experienced has been such a pleasure. I have really benefited from the work I’ve done, and I look forward to continuing my internship at WILL. It is gratifying for me to hear the final program, and I cannot wait for others to hear it.
SCIENTISTS FEATURED IN "WIDGETS AND DIGITS"
- Jennifer Cole, professor of linguistics
- Monica Fabiani, professor of psychology
- David Goldberg, professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering
- Eric Jakobsson, professor of medical information science and molecular and integrative physiology
- Patricia Jeng, founder of Mimosa Acoustics, tenant at the U of I research park
- Paul Lauterbur, professor of chemistry
- Tony Leggett, professor of physics
- John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering
- Paul Saylor, professor of computer science
- Klaus Schulten, professor of physics
- Marc Snir, professor of computer science
- Pierre Wiltzius, Beckman Institute director
- Allen Avner, research scientist emeritus
- Harold Lopeman, retired computer technician
MORE PHOTOS: THE EARLY STAGES OF "WIDGETS AND DIGITS"
Nick Zukoski, now a sophomore, works as a technician on the Class of 2010's subfreshman oral history project in 2006. The WILL documentary "Widgets and Digits" would evolve out of that project. Photo courtesy WILL (click to enlarge)