SOE Research Team Helps Children to Make Sense of 9/11

Forty civilians perished aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

The flight — which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — was one of the four hijacked planes used in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Moments before the crash, passengers and crew banded together to commandeer the plane from knife-wielding terrorists, thwarting an attack on Washington, D.C.

Sixteen years later, School of Education faculty member Mary Margaret Kerr still gets choked up as she speaks of the events of that day: “Those brave men and women represent the best of what America stands for. The courage they displayed knowing they were in the last minutes of their lives is inspiring beyond words.”

Kerr is a professor of psychology in education whose academic research focuses on assisting children facing crisis due to life circumstances, traumatic events and mental illness. In 2012, she combined her academic expertise with her esteem for Flight 93’s passengers and crew to create the University of Pittsburgh Flight 93 Research Team. Working in partnership with the Flight 93 National Memorial, the all-volunteer team launched a series of initiatives to help explain to elementary school-aged children the topics surrounding Flight 93 and 9/11 as a whole.

“There is scant research as to what’s going on in children’s minds when they are confronting the concept of terrorism or other historically tragic events. So, parents often have a difficult time explaining the significance of that day and what happened on that site,” said Kerr, who was selected to serve on the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial’s board of directors for her work.

“For the past five years, our team has been working to honor the memories of those who lost their lives on Flight 93 and tell the whole story of 9/11 in a manner that children can grasp without causing them emotional distress.”

Eleanor Mattern (left) and Mary Margaret Kerr collaborated with graduate students last spring to help improve access to oral histories recorded about the Flight 93 tragedy.

The team’s contributions have included developing Junior Ranger Program booklets — pamphlets that help children understand the history and context of the Flight 93 crash site. The newest edition of the pamphlet was recently completed and will be in use at the national memorial this fall. The team also contributed to “Through Their Eyes” — a monthlong display within the Learning Center of the Flight 93 National Memorial that featured “mementos of tribute” — drawings, notes, photographs and other items left behind by children at the crash site.

“Even very young children express complex feelings about this tragedy,” Kerr said. “As adults, we need to be mindful of children’s questions, ideas and feelings. Letting children take the lead in conversations can shed light on how they are understanding a tragedy and give us hints about what information we should share.”

Most recently, Kerr’s research team collaborated with graduate students in visiting assistant professor Eleanor Mattern’s Access, Systems and Tools for Archival Collections course last spring. Through this partnership, students investigated how to improve public access to the Flight 93 Oral History Project, a collection of more than 850 interviews with key figures connected to the incident. The result was a series of recommendations now under consideration by the National Park Service on how using keywords, summaries and other metadata can make the oral histories easier to discover and navigate for historians and the general public.

Mattern, a 2014 alumna of Pitt’s PhD in Library and Information Science program, researches information policy, digital stewardship and record keeping. She said she considered it a personal privilege to supply her students’ expertise to this effort and said that the project also served as a meaningful experiential learning opportunity for her students.

“We were honored to share our skills and knowledge as information professionals and to make a contribution to the Flight 93 Oral History Project,” said Mattern, who holds a joint appointment with the School of Computing and Information and the University Library System.

“Our class collaboration with Mary Margaret’s team brought multiple entities of the University community together for the benefit of a collection that is historically significant, not just to Southwestern Pennsylvania but to our entire country.”Kerr will commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 at a special ceremony within the Flight 93 National Memorial. She plans to continue her work there for the foreseeable future, aiding National Park Service professionals in further refining educational programs and outreach efforts. Next spring, she will take her team to the Pentagon’s memorial in Washington, D.C., to study how children have responded to that site.

“The 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93 bring special meaning to this work, and our team often speaks of them,” said Kerr. “We consider it a privilege to keep their memories alive.”

This story originally appeared on PittWire.