Our new occasional series highlights exceptional students who’ve fallen in love with learning and the unique opportunities in and around Pittsburgh that have triggered their passions. Earlier this month we profiled a 14-year-old chess play and YouTube developer, and a teen game designer. This week we talk with 17-year-old digital journalist Nathan Lawyer.

Nathan Lawyer: Broadcasting Confidence

When Nathan Lawyer was a freshman, he and his friends made a horror movie in the hallways of Cornell High School which looked abandoned and haunted during after-school hours.

On a whim, he decided to bring the film to his school’s afterschool broadcast club to see if he could get it aired during the morning announcements. It was a hit.

Lawyer started attending broadcast club meetings, doing odd jobs, filling in for absent seniors, and helping create extra material for the daily announcements. Now a senior himself, Lawyer is the executive director of CHS-TV, the before-school media production club that actually produces the announcements, news and weather and then broadcasts them live over the TVs in the school every morning. The leadership skills and confidence he’s picked up while delivering Cornell its daily happenings have encouraged him to reach for further successes in and out of school.

“We were just having fun and goofing around, but then it turned into an actual passion,” Lawyer says.

As his passion for video and broadcasting grew, so did the space to practice it at Cornell, which is located in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, just a few miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh.

When Lawyer first joined the club, the computer and equipment in his school was nestled in the back of a shop classroom. But with the help of grants from the Grable Foundation and the Best Buy Children’s Foundation, along with extra funds from the booster club, the school bought five iMacs (Lawyer calls them “beautiful”), a green screen, lighting and other equipment. The district even built a wall in the Home Ec room, partitioning off a space for the crew to record and edit.

Educators and the philanthropy community believe that supporting this kind of advanced technology at the high school level can help kids learn to become producers and not just consumers of digital media. This in turn will help them build the crucial media literacy skills they’ll need whether or not they pursue technical careers.

“When I was younger, I was one of the energetic kids in the class. I couldn’t sit still for two minutes and I was always in trouble for talking. [T]hese clubs and broadcasting has given me a way to apply that energy.”

The Borough of Coraopolis has a history in production. Back in the day the neighborhood was known as a key link in the chain of industrial sites of the steel industry. Steel was produced on its way down the Monongahela River, then by the time it got to the Ohio, it could be turned into things. In Coraopolis, it was turned into bridge-building components.

CHS-TV meets every morning at 7:20 am to broadcast announcements and outdoor weather reports and is live by 7:40. Lawyer is responsible for overseeing the on-air talent, cameras, weather graphics, lights, teleprompter, and audio and helping crew members with their roles. It’s not always seamless. Sometimes there are software glitches, other times the younger on-air talent stumbles over unfamiliar words while reading the teleprompter. But getting younger students involved early helps them stay involved, and working with them has taught Nathan how to encourage and mentor the next generation of broadcasters.

“We give everyone a chance,” he says.

But Lawyer remembers the highlights much more than the snafus.

Once, the crew advertised Twin Day, a spirit day where pairs of students dress alike, by creating a segment where Lawyer appeared to be with his double.

“They have so little time to work on it, and the whole school sees it,” says Kris Hupp, a social studies teacher and 21st Century Teaching and Learning Coach who also sponsors CHS-TV. Hupp explains that kids gain confidence from the process of broadcasting because they create a product everyone sees and responds to. “They’re doing a live broadcast in front of hundreds of people every single day.”

Lawyer’s love of speaking and producing spurred him to run for junior and senior class president. With encouragement from Hupp, he’s entered video contests and presented with Hupp at TRETC, a regional education technology conference.

“Since I’ve been in junior high, I’ve never been shorter than six foot. But even though I was that tall, I guess I never really realized anybody noticed me,” he says. He recalled the feedback he got the first time he did the announcements in his best pirate impression for National Talk Like a Pirate Day.  “I remember doing that for the first time, and people were coming up to me like, ‘Wow, that was so cool!’  It makes you feel more confident, and it made me want to run for class president.”

His achievements extend to out-of-school endeavors too. Last summer, he applied for a travel scholarship and spent five weeks in South Africa, where he taught kids to use computers, visited national parks, and got a neck massage from an ostrich. (“It was not a good massage.”)

Now that he’s back in school, Nathan is in the early stages of a new project called This Day In Pittsburgh History with CHS-TV. It aims to teach peers about the history of their city by broadcasting short original video clips every morning. The clips won’t start airing until January, but the group has already started trekking around the city to film and edit the 45-second segments. Their first two shoots took place at the Frick Art & Historical Center and the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum. The whole project is being done through partnerships with museums, libraries, archives, and experts. The goal is to showcase 180 historical moments during the morning announcements and on YouTube.

Besides video production, in his free time Lawyer loves learning about different cultures. When he thinks about his future career, Lawyer says he would like to run a nonprofit. He’s already tried his hand at fundraising. After learning about droughts in Somalia in his history class, he started a fundraiser called the Horn of Africa Project, or HOAP, to raise money to build a well in Kenya. His goal is to raise $10,000.

“When I was younger, I was one of the energetic kids in the class. I couldn’t sit still for two minutes and I was always in trouble for talking,” Lawyer says about why his involvement in extracurriculars made him so engaged in learning. “But I think doing all these clubs and broadcasting has given me a way to apply that energy. For me, it came to applying my need to talk with others and my drive.”