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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
David Ward, left, program manager at the McMillen Center for Health Education, talks to Wayne New Tech students about the dangers of smoking on Wednesday via the new video conferencing studio.

Actually, the McMillen Center finds it's easier being green

David Ward is standing in front of a landscape of pure neon green – one large green wall is behind him; a green mat is below his feet.

But to the class of teens at New Tech High School, watching Ward via video from their classroom, he's standing outside the McMillen Center.

Then in an instant he's in the McMillen Center lobby.

In another, the background morphs into a graphic that lists some of the dangers that come with smoking.

Ward, the health educator at the McMillen Center, demonstrated the center's new green screen technology Wednesday, which the non-profit hopes will help reach more kids and teens with messages about health and safety.

And it's especially apt to have now, during a time when schools are cutting budgets and taking fewer field trips, according to McMillen Center CEO Holli Seabury.

"If we want to reach students today with a health message, we have to go to them," she said.

The center has been doing video conferencing since about 2005, Seabury said, but it's all been done in a cramped and hot studio.

An instructor in that studio could literally stretch his or her arms out and touch each wall. There was only room to film someone from the chest down, and the lights made the temperature sometimes unbearable.

"If you did a video about exercise, and you touched your toes, your head would disappear from the screen and the kids would laugh," said Linda Hathaway, program manager at the center. "Then you'd laugh and you'd feel stupid."

With an $80,000 grant from the McMillen Foundation, the center created an entirely new and spacious studio and bought the green screen technology.

The green screen tech – which is exactly what weathermen and weatherwomen use on the news – allows instructors to do more interactive presentations with the video conferencing.

Officials hope that it will also keep the center competitive with other similar non-profits that produce educational programs.

Seabury said the first year the center did video conferencing, it reached about 600 students.

Last year it reached 8,000 students.

"We can come right to you in your classroom, whether you're three miles down the road or in Northern Canada with three feet of snow on the ground," Seabury said.

The most popular programs teachers have been requesting from the McMillen Center are ones dealing with texting and driving, cyber bullying and sexting – the latter of which has become a huge concern for middle school administrators.

There are also other programs, though, from healthy eating to smoking to sexually transmitted diseases.

"Many of the topics are maybe ones a teacher is not prepared to teach, or maybe they want an expert voice," Seabury said.

And with the green screen technology, instructors at McMillen can now drive whatever message they have home more effectively.

Now with the power of special effects.