WVPB-TV is returning to its roots as the Educational Broadcasting Authority of West Virginia as it shifts production priorities from local programming to digital content for teachers.
When Scott Finn took over as executive director in February 2013, the board gave him a mandate to “specifically help pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educators, parents and students,” he said. “That was clear when I was hired.” Finn has an educational background himself, having worked as a sixth-grade social studies and English teacher.
So the Charleston-based station is cutting back longtime weekly shows Doctors on Call and The Law Works to occasional productions and focusing instead on new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) interactive videos to help middle-schoolers think about future careers.
Educators specifically asked for the content, Finn said. “A lot of students in West Virginia are getting iPads in school. Teachers say they need digital content they can trust that is aligned to Common Core and other standards,” he said.
The station’s first step was to get national PBS LearningMedia content into classrooms. The on-demand media service offers digital resources for educators. “We also wanted to make a local contribution, so we asked teachers what else they needed,” Finn said. West Virginia requires all eighth-graders to complete career-prep courses, but teachers lacked digital content. “I said, we can help,” Finn said.
Work began six months ago, and four videos are nearing completion. The married team of WVPB producer Chuck Kleine and reporter/producer Glynis Board is producing the pilot interactive YouTube series. The two have been collaborating with teachers, middle-school kids in focus groups, the West Virginia Department of Education and several universities. Board said they hope to roll out six videos this fall.
“We’re using the YouTube structure of embedded video annotations and links to allow kids to follow their interests through different career paths,” Board said. “They can learn in a more active way about careers and also how various things they are learning in school have practical applications in the real world.”
Finn’s favorite video so far features pipefitter Matthew McGinnis of Fairmont, W.Va., who talks about his daily routine in a five-year apprenticeship program. McGinnis shows students how he uses the Pythagorean theorem to determine the length of a pipe to go between two 45-degree angles. “As a kid, I didn’t think I’d need math or science class,” he says, but now he uses those skills every day. At the video’s end, students figure the length of that pipe using the equation.
“We showed the video to the kids, and they had all kinds of questions we hadn’t answered,” Finn said. What’s McGinnis’s salary? How many years of school did he need? What does he wear to work? “So we went back in and answered those questions,” he said.
Finn said that in one focus group, “a student raised his hand and said, ‘I want to be a pipefitter.’ I thought, ‘Great! That’s the point.’ ”
The only complaint from teachers so far is that six videos isn’t enough, Finn said. The state Department of Education would like to see one for each of the 20 jobs in the career curriculum.
WVPB is fronting $60,000 for the project, which has a budget of $100,000. Underwriters include the West Virginia University School of Engineering, Verizon, the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation and EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), a federal program that works to ensure that funding for science and engineering research and education is distributed more evenly nationwide, instead of flowing just to high-profile institutions.
Finn said WVPB is financially stable, though it’s in the second of three years of 7.5 percent annual reductions in state support. “We’ve had to make tough choices,” he said. “We haven’t canceled shows, but we’ve moved away from the weekly shows where people sit around a desk and talk or take calls from the audience. While those are useful in their own way, we feel the career series is more useful.”
Docs on Call, on the air since the 1990s, is transitioning from a medical call-in show to a program with more reported features and healthy cooking tips, he said. “Viewers can still call in, but this will be a lot more engaging.” Producers are also looking at a similar revamp for The Law Works, which will target specific issues in the state instead of explaining general legal concepts, as it has for 15 years. In February, an hourlong radio/TV simulcast of The Law Works focused on legal issues surrounding a January chemical spill that polluted water in nine counties.
“We want to do more of that,” Finn said. “I’d rather do fewer really excellent shows.”