How are an elementary school student, the Dust Bowl era, the University of Virginia and the Smithsonian American Art Museum connected?  


All play a role in "Picturing the 1930s," a new educational Web site created by the museum in collaboration with U.Va. and launched publicly today.


Users of the site, many of whom are teachers and secondary school students, explore the 1930s through paintings, artist memorabilia, historical documents, newsreels, period photographs, music and video in a virtual movie theater.


Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator of the museum, guides visitors through the theater's eight theme rooms, labeled "The Country," "The Depression," "Industry," "Labor," "American People," "Leisure," "The City" and "The New Deal."


Using PrimaryAccess, a Web-based teaching tool developed at U.Va.'s Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education, visitors can select images, write text and record narration in the style of a documentary filmmaker. They can then screen their video in a virtual theater.


Several documentaries have been created since the beta launch of the site this summer. One, titled "Ajax," features an oil painting of the same name by John Steuart Curry, with text that reads, "This is my favorite artwork from the collection. It was created to give people hope during the Dust Bowl era."


According to the Web site, "Curry created his painting of green pastures and fat cattle to reassure Americans worn down by the Dust Bowl years," a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to prairie lands in the '30s. 


Another documentary uses a painting by Mitchell Siporin of two men working on a rail car to illustrate the story of a family member who vanished in the '30s.


"This painting reminds me of my Uncle Walter. I never met Walter. I know him only from the recollections of my grandmother. During the Depression, Walter left home looking for work. Without a car, I assume he caught a train, as depicted in 'Back o' the Yards,' by Mitchell Siporin. My grandmother was usually an upbeat positive person, but sometimes she would say wistfully, 'I wonder what happened to Walter?'"


PrimaryAccess is the first online tool that allows students to combine their own text, historical images from primary sources, and audio narration to create short online documentary films linked to social studies standards of learning, said Glen Bull, co-director of the Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education and professor of instructional technology.


Since the first version was developed in collaboration with U.Va.'s Center for Digital History and piloted in a local elementary school in 2005, more than 9,000 users worldwide have created more than 20,000 short movies.


PrimaryAccess is designed specifically for teaching history. In creating digital documentaries, students embed facts and events in a narrative context that can enhance their retention and understanding of the material, said Curry School research scientist Bill Ferster, who developed the application with Bull. In addition to increasing their knowledge about the period, "Picturing the 1930s" enhances students' visual literacy skills, Ferster noted.


U.Va.'s collaboration with the Smithsonian began under a 2007 grant from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund for which the museum has provided art images as an impetus to explore social studies and history. Through the grant, teachers developed lesson plans connecting art and history, which are now available on the Smithsonian site, Bull explained.


"PrimaryAccess offers teachers another tool to bring history alive," said Ferster, who pioneered the first digital nonlinear editing system for film and video and has worked with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.


In July, PrimaryAccess was named by the American Association of School Librarians to its list of Top 25 Web Sites for Teaching and Learning.