Journalism and Science Students Take to Field Together

December 15, 2015

EJ Academy


Professor Adam Kuban (left) works with geology students Zach Korst (center, foreground) and Giovanni Alvarez (center, rear), and journalism student Todd “TJ” Dudley, as they prepare to tape a video segment at a river confluence.                                                                                                                       Photo by Dylan Hayes


Galoshes and pH paper aren’t typical school supplies.

And helping to secure $100,000 environmental grants and presenting at science conferences aren’t typical results of journalism coursework.

But they are a part of a course at Ball State University that combines students in journalism and telecommunications with those majoring in geology, natural resources and environmental management to research and report on water quality.

The class, which for journalism students is called Immersive Learning, and for geology students is called Field Methods, gives the two majors a chance to interact and build a mutual understanding that can be valuable once they enter their fields. The class focuses on a different aspect of water quality each semester.

“We’re trying to create solutions to that complex problem, and then articulate that to the public — what it is, why it matters, why it’s important and then, what can be done about it,” said Adam Kuban, an assistant journalism professor who co-teaches the course.

Kuban pioneered the course in 2013 with Lee Florea, a Ball State assistant professor of geological sciences. The first iteration measured sediment in the White River.

Students in the 2014 version of the course examined the effects of logjams in the nearby Mississinewa River. Their work helped to land a $100,000 grant for the removal of the obstructions. And some students presented their findings at conferences as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., and most recently at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Norman, Okla.

The 14 students endured mile-long hikes through cornfields, foot-deep mud and hordes of mosquitoes to document the size, composition and changes in nutrients of water analyzed above and below logjams.

Students also made short videos and snapped pictures at the eight logjam sites, turning their data into multimedia news reports for the class website, Water Quality Indiana (

“The idea was public understanding of science and seeing the bigger picture,” Kuban said. “We want to push that idea of a connection, and help people understand that they don’t need to be a scientist to understand water quality.”

Massive logjams create environmental hazards

Logjams — obstructions in rivers created by a collection of trees and other debris — create stagnant water where algae can upset water nutrient balances and bacteria thrive. Logjams also collect garbage and hazardous materials that float down the river, which can accumulate and turn a small logjam into a much larger problem.

Some logjams the class investigated spanned more than the length of two football fields.

“The first logjam we actually went out to ended up being about a quarter of a mile or half of a mile long, and just had a ton of trash and everything, so it was extremely smelly,” said photojournalism major Rick Purtha. “The majority of the people who hear the word logjam just think of, you know, branches, or maybe a tree or two in the water, and when we got there, it was just so massive that we didn’t know how to handle it.”

At times the students literally immersed themselves in their topic. One lost his footing and fell into a shallow pool in the middle of the fallen trees, garbage and other debris, Kuban said.

“Once I made sure he was okay and wasn’t hurt, it was kind of funny. And I asked him … ‘What does it feel like in there, what did it feel like stepping around in that swampiness?’ And he said that it felt like pudding with rocks,” Kuban said. “It’s supposed to be a river.”

While the class met only once a week, students put in plenty of time outside the classroom getting early-morning water samples. One weekend, they visited several Mississinewa River confluences — points where the river flows into other rivers — a trip that covered nearly 800 miles and took two days. Additional time was spent in the lab, testing water samples.

Field work leads to grant proposal

Purtha, who recently presented at SEJ’s 2015 conference, discovered a new passion. The class cemented his decision to add an environmental studies minor to his academic load.

“It was really an eye-opener for me because, as a journalist, I never thought I’d have to understand what total suspended solids are or what’s causing a logjam,” he said. “[It] really gave me a different perspective of how I’m going to have to understand things when I get out into my career field.”

Dylan Hayes, a natural resources and environmental management major, became the course’s teaching assistant after taking it the year before. He said working with journalism students gave him a new perspective.

“I got to interact a lot more with the public and see things from the perspective of an average person in a city or town, and how science can sometimes be confusing,” Hayes said. “It’s good to know that journalists are there to reinterpret information so everyone can understand it.”

The class is part of Ball State’s Building Better Communities Fellows program, which focuses on community outreach.

The class works with at least one community partner each semester to connect the students and their coursework with the community, Kuban said. That semester’s partner was FlatLand Resources, a local planning and civil engineering firm.

After four months of trekking through fields and rivers and scrubbing mud stains from their clothes, the students wrote a grant proposal for FlatLand Resources to fund removal of some logjams. FlatLand worked with some of Indiana’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts to submit the grant to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in January.

The proposal was a good way to finish the semester, Kuban said.

“It made for a good assignment, kind of like a final exam,” he said. “They collected all this data, they did all this investigation and exploration.”

‘Nerve-wracking’ conference presentations

And it paid off. Last spring, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources awarded $80,000 for the removal of the three largest, more problematic Mississinewa logjams. Local donors gave an additional $20,000 for the project. The logjam removal will be handled by the nearby Randolph County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Purtha heard the news during a shift at his movie theater job.

“Adam texted me and told me we had gotten the money,” he said. “And I just kind of, like, yelled ‘YES!’ at work and everybody just stood there and stared at me.”

Purtha and a few of his classmates presented the research at the Geological Society of America Conference in March and at other conferences.

“I never realized how nerve-wracking it would actually be,” he said. “But you know, it’s another one of those big things I’ll be able to say that I’ve done.” Kuban and Florea recently submitted a $455,000 proposal to the National Science Foundation to expand the course beyond Ball State.

Kuban hopes to get other universities in Indiana and beyond involved to create a network of students and universities working together on an overarching water quality project.

“It’s meant to start here and then branch out to the region, and then hopefully beyond state borders, if we are ultimately able to develop in a way the NSF grant would allow us,” he said.

Brooke Kansier is a student affiliated with Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015/2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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