Sharing Stories of a Road Well-Traveled

Dotted with small towns along its east-west course across Indiana, U.S. Highway 40 is no ordinary thoroughfare. It’s a historic landmark that stretches 156 miles from Richmond to Terre Haute—Indiana’s segment of the Historic National Road, the first federally funded highway.

Ball State has certainly taken advantage of its proximity to this famous landmark. The National Road has spawned two immersive learning projects, both led by telecommunications professor Nancy Carlson.

The most recent project had students and faculty crafting three digital media exhibits for a new museum feature at the National Road Heritage Site. After two years of research and production, the exhibits are now on display at Huddleston Farmhouse in Cambridge City, Indiana.

“The students had a seat at the table with architects, historians, museum staff, and other experts to decide what to build,” says Carlson. “They saw their concepts come to life. You can’t be much more immersive than building museum exhibits that will last for decades.”

Cutting-Edge Exhibits

Students and faculty participating in the creation of the exhibits included members of the digital storytelling graduate program and staff from Emerging Technologies, with the help of Split Rock Studios in Minneapolis. The exhibits invite visitors to peer into the back end of a life-sized covered wagon and watch video readings of authentic pioneer diary entries, use a touch-screen interactive map that explores 60 historical sites along the National Road, and sit at the dashboard of a 1955 model car that displays video footage of American car culture between 1926 and 1956 at the touch of each car radio button.

“There is a common misperception that technology these days exists only inside devices you can hold in your hand,” says Brandon Smith, assistant director of creative projects in Emerging Technologies. “For the National Road exhibits, we’re using technology to provide a much more interactive experience for visitors.”

Jeff Hendrix, MA '12, says he signed up for academic credit to design the interactive map display but ended up heavily involved with all three exhibits.

“This project in particular gave me a professional outlet in which to use the skills and techniques I learned in my undergrad,” says Hendrix. “In order to grow in knowledge and wisdom, students need to not just learn skills but also apply them.”

Movers and Stakers

In her first project on the National Road in 2007, Carlson led a team of seven undergraduate and graduate students in an immersive learning experience that produced a documentary about the Indiana segment of the road. The hour-long piece, Movers and Stakers: Stories along the Indiana National Road, focuses on the stories that unfolded on, around, and because of the road.

Brian Handler, MA ’12, was the documentary’s director of photography. He supervised the other students, using the opportunity to refine his storytelling and production skills and practice teaching.

“We were able to get out there in the field and get our hands dirty,” says Handler. “It was a great way for all of us to learn, and I also got the experience of translating what I’ve learned so that I can teach others.”

Screened throughout Indiana in 2009, the movie was named Platinum Documentary Feature at the 2010 Creative Spirit Awards. It has been used in visitor centers, museums with touch-screen kiosks, and classrooms.

Funding for both National Road projects came from National Scenic Byways Grants from the Federal Highway Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“If any university was going to tell digital stories about the National Road, it should be Ball State,” says Carlson.

Related Links:

Department of Telecommunications

Digital Storytelling

Emerging Media Initiative 

Emerging Technologies

Immersive Learning 

Indiana Landmarks: Huddleston Farmhouse & National Road Center

Movers and Stakers Website