Initial Publication Date: October 8, 2015

Science, Journalism Undergraduates Join Forces to Boost Public Understanding of Water Quality Issues

LEE J. FLOREA ( is an assistant professor of geological sciences, ADAM J. KUBAN ( is an assistant professor of journalism, ZACH C. KORST ( is an undergraduate in the Department of Geological Sciences, and RICK T. PURTHA ( is an undergraduate in the Department of Journalism, all at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Experiential learning theory is the process whereby knowledge results from guiding students through immersion, implementation of potential solution to, and reflection about ill-defined problems (Kolb, 1984). In other words, students learn and therefore acquire knowledge through experience. In a more contemporary context, Giroux (2010) argues that students must be provided this opportunity as it allows them "to come to terms with their own power as critically engaged citizens." Giroux further argues that educators do not adequately prepare students for the complexities associated with real-world issues. This problem seems particularly apparent in the nexus of journalism and science education.

Respected entities such as the Poynter Institute at the University of South Florida occasionally offer tips for science reporting, acknowledging that science is "pretty complicated" and instructing journalists to "find the passion and excitement of the story" (Iglinski, 2013). Finding the story is one thing; understanding it and reporting it to a lay audience requires more experience. It is that experience, though, that seems missing from current curricula: "In a world increasingly saturated with data, science and statistical classes should form part of the core curriculum for journalism training" (The Guardian, 2013).

Likewise, aspiring scientists need a forum where they can experience journalism — its process(es) and deadline pressures — and not just read about how to do it, take a test, and/or complete a benign exercise. "The old model of two tests — a midterm and a final — is not effective for this group. Generation Me's self-confidence and easy access to information leads them to prefer interactive learning" (Twenge, 2013, p. 67-68). Bhattacharya (2012) specifically notes that scientists commonly misunderstand the standard structure of news and the reason for word limits.

The Nexus of Science and Journalism Majors

Drs. Adam Kuban and Lee Florea, assistant professors of journalism and geology, respectively, at Ball State University, co-instruct an academically diverse group of 14 undergraduates whose majors include journalism, telecommunications, geology, and natural resource and environmental management. Together, the student cohorts conduct scientific investigative journalism via two storylines: a local angle that involves 11 logjams obstructing the upstream reaches of the Mississinewa River and a statewide angle that pertains to river headwaters and confluences in the Mississinewa watershed and throughout Indiana.

Red Tail Land Conservancy, a non-profit land trust, and Flat Land Resources, a local environmental consulting firm, serve as community partners, one criterion indicative of an experiential-learning course at Ball State. As community partners, consultants from Red Tail and Flat Land offer students access to some logjam sites and teach students the importance and value of environmental organizations.

For the logjam storyline, students collect multimedia and water samples at each of the 11 sites. Students operate lab equipment to measure ion chemistry and the concentrations of nutrients. Media products such as pictures and video of the logjams, interviews with property owners and graphical depictions of scientific findings will illuminate the scope of these logjams and their potentially adverse impact.

In an effort to boost public knowledge of logjams and associated documentation of water quality, students' scientific and mediated content are made available for viewing at this site:

Their content also contributes to logjam-removal grants submitted to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. If successfully acquired, these funds can help remove the debris at logjam sites and restore the natural conditions of the river, which can relieve taxpayers of this burden.

The interdisciplinary group of students is also building on the idea that what happens in the Mississinewa River eventually affects what happens downstream in the watershed, influencing other communities' water quality.

These students have focused on certain Indiana confluence points affected by the Mississinewa River. Similar to the logjam storyline, the students are collecting and analyzing water samples and generating media content, which, when edited, will inform viewers on the website of these river locations — what they look like and their basic water-quality "health."

The students hope to convince Hoosiers that everybody is connected via their water resources.

Challenges and Successes

Shared, mutual respect between the faculty members is imperative for success when adopting this pedagogical model. Also vital are clearly defined roles: As expected, Florea offered most of the sciencebased instruction and graded content that contained sample data analysis; Kuban, on the other hand, provided media instruction and guidance toward the development of deliverables. For matters unrelated to these subject-specific parameters, students knew they could approach either instructor.

Additionally, it helps to identify a community partner and establish rapport before classwork commences — to establish goals but also to determine the partner's preferred level of involvement with the project. Knowing these in advance aids in effective lesson planning and budgeting of class time.

This course is particularly challenging since the students are expected to do things not typically associated with their respective majors. The reality is that not every student completely buys into the transdisciplinary benefit of the course design. However, we request that their personal bias(es) not interfere with our professional objectives and community partner needs.

In addition, the students have to learn to collaborate with different protocols and approaches, and they must teach each other about the "other side" of the project. For example, science-oriented students are expected to create, edit, and present media products such as photos, video, and/or written stories. The media students are expected to learn how to make field measurements of water quality, properly collect samples, and analyze those samples in the lab for a suite of chemical parameters. The students, while hesitant to embrace the fieldwork and multimedia demands, eventually indicated in personal comments and documented reflection that they appreciated the opportunity to contribute data and content toward an ill-defined scientific problem.

Undergraduates formerly and currently enrolled in this trans-disciplinary endeavor have presented their findings at conferences around the country, most recently at the 34th Annual Lilly International Conference on College Teaching. Two students documented their reactions to this experience, and their testimonies follow.

Undergraduate Conference Presenter #1

It was very nerve-racking going into the conference. Being one of two undergraduate students, I was afraid of messing up — and it wouldn't be in front of peers but in front of college professors from across the country.

While presenting, we had nothing but standing room in our presentation room, and it was surprisingly calming to realize that all those people wanted to hear what we had to say.

After the conference presentation, we received positive feedback. I even had professors from other universities asking me my thoughts about their course design and how to incorporate a form of immersive learning into other majors and classes different from what Dr. Florea and Dr. Kuban teach. This was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had when interacting with professors.

Undergraduate Conference Presenter #2

I was not sure exactly what to expect before the conference. I did, however, picture a generally respectable, quiet audience in a large, open, conference-style room. I thought months before the conference that we would know every word we would say during our presentation and that we would have to be on our toes during the questions asked at the end. I was expecting to lecture.

After the presentation, I was surprised about the outcome. My previous picture on what the conference room would be like was completely false. We were in a small, intimate room with the audience just a few feet away. This actually helped me relax and connect with the audience. I was also pleased that the presentation atmosphere was very welcoming and comfortable — not stressful and tense as I previously pictured. Instead of remembering every word like I imagined, we just talked like you would in a normal conversation, knowing the primary ideas we wanted to discuss. Answering the questions the audience asked us was the same: very smooth and conversational. I gained invaluable speaking skills preparing for this conference, skills that I could have never obtained in a traditional classroom setting. I loved this opportunity and experience.


Bhattacharya, A., 2012, Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don't understand journalism: The Guardian, (accessed September 2012).

Giroux, H., 2010, Rethinking education as the practice of freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy: Truthout, (accessed March 2014).

Iglinski, P., 2013, The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them): The Poynter Institute, (accessed March 2014).

Kolb, D., and Boyatzis, R., 2000, Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions, in Sternberg, R., and Zhang, L., eds., Perspectives on Cognitive, Learning, and Thinking Styles: New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Science should be on the journalism curriculum, 2013: The Guardian, (accessed March 2014).

Twenge, J., 2013, Teaching Generation Me: Teaching of Psychology, v. 40, p. 66-69.


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