Students learn in a 'flash'

Teaming up to make a book come alive

It all started with a classic piece of literature and a desire to learn.

UNI students in an interactive digital communication class joined forces with sixth-grade students at Malcolm Price Laboratory School (MPLS) to create some innovative results.

Emily Stortz and Sam Schillinger

UNI communication studies student Emily Stortz and Malcolm Price Laboratory sixth-grader Sam Schillinger use Adobe Photoshop and Flash to create animation for the book Hatchet. "I had so much fun with this project," said Schillinger. "The best part was at the end when we got to tell everyone else about our scenes, and we got to see everyone else's. They were all really cool!"


Bettina Fabos, associate professor of communication studies at UNI, and Julie Creeden, instructor at MPLS, worked together to create a project that taught students how to use contemporary digital technology in UNI's Macintosh labs. Through this technology, students used animation to create scenes from Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a book that middle school students have read for decades.

Beginning in late October and finishing right before Thanksgiving break, UNI and MPLS students used the Adobe Creative Suite design programs Photoshop and Flash to bring the book to life.

"This interactive digital communication class is a skills class, but we also work in a lot of theory revolving around design, code, literacy, education and visual culture," said Fabos. "As I was thinking about the education unit of the class, it occurred to me that it would be a great experience for our students to educate kids about digital media."

Creeden jumped at the opportunity.

"When we began the collaborative project, all of a sudden my students were on a mission to learn the skills necessary to make their scene come to life," said Creeden.  "This authentic purpose for learning something very rigorous is when real growth takes place.  Thanks to this collaboration, my sixth-graders were able to work at their own pace, ask questions, experiment, learn from mistakes, celebrate new insights, gain confidence, and during all of this, make a new friend.  How could any teacher not be pleased with this outcome?"

"This whole project was so cool!" said Phynnex Ambrose, sixth-grader at MPLS. "I knew a little bit about Photoshop and Flash before we started, but when we got into the project we shared our own opinions about what we thought and we came up with new ways to do things.  We actually made about four scenes and then we decided on the one we liked best.  I really liked working at my own pace with my college friends."

The advantages were two-fold. 

Beth and Peyton


"It's important to collaborate because all subjects can be taught across levels, and it's a wonderful thing for UNI students to go from student to teacher," said Fabos. "They have to be responsible for what they know or what they have learned, because suddenly someone else is dependent on their knowledge.

"Some of my students found that they like teaching.  Others were amazed at how quick and savvy their sixth-grade partners were.  And I think it made them realize that we should be teaching more creative digital media projects in earlier grades.  Many of them said, 'I wish I had known some of these skills when I was in sixth grade!'"

As for the future of teaching these educational sessions about digital technology? "Because this project was so successful, I'm going to make it part of the class every semester," said Fabos. "Next semester I'll be working with a math teacher and students will have to animate mathematical concepts!"

To see the students' creations of Hatchet scene by scene, visit


Cassandra  Clint and Sam work together
University of Northern Iowa communication studies major Cassandra Milbrandt (top) educates Malcolm Price Laboratory sixth-grader Gabrielle Carr (left) about the use of contemporary digital technoloogy through the Adobe Creative Suite programs on UNI's campus. Clint Griffin (right) and Sam Prophet work on animating scene one of Hatchet, illustrating: Brian is on his way to see his dad who works in the Canadian wilderness. He and a pilot are flying in a small amphibious Cessna 406. When the pilot of the plane suffers from a heart attack, Brian is forced to make a crash landing in an L-shaped lake.