Downstream sends students to Lousisiana to examine water quality

When Adam Kuban, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, was a doctoral student at the University of Utah, he had the idea to bring in a scientific authority to work with his journalism students. Some understood numbers and science, but others were fearful of it.

“That was always my philosophy … you don’t have to be an expert, but you have to have at least have to have some working knowledge on various topics outside of journalism,” Kuban said. “I think it’s difficult for anybody to know a little something about everything, but there should be a handful of topics where you can look at content as it comes at you and make sense of it.”

Kuban didn’t get the chance to start that idea until he got to Indiana and met Lee Florea, in Ball State’s department of geological sciences. The first iteration of Water Quality Indiana (WQI) was in Fall 2013. WQI’s mission was to merge the two departments with the idea of bringing in a community partner to address local, water-related issues.

The third iteration of WQI took place in the summer and fall of 2016 and included a 25-minute documentary, “Downstream” on hypoxia- a dead zone of water with low oxygen levels.

Without oxygen, marine life can’t live or grow in an area. The main driver of hypoxia is nutrient runoff from fertilizers.

“Indiana has a history of having many issues related to its water supply and we continue to this day to have issues … air and water, can’t go too long without those,” Kuban said. “The documentary was something new. Before last semester, I’ve never directed a project that resulted in a 25-minute feature documentary.”

Ryan Flanery, a senior journalism and telecommunications-news major, took the summer class with science majors to learn about water and oxygen amounts and communicate the science majors’ local findings at Buck Creek on the website.

One of the science majors told Flanery about the hypoxia zone and a suggestion was made to go see it in New Orleans. Kuban laughed, but the trip happened in the fall semester.

Flanery said he and the other four students who worked on the project knew they had to plan the shoots and work together to get the content. Footage and interviews shown in the documentary came from Indiana and New Orleans.

“[Going to New Orleans] was probably the highlight of my Ball State career. That was the true sense of immersive learning … we were in New Orleans for a week and that was it. We had one shot to get what we needed and to get what we needed done in a good enough quality so we could actually use it,” Flanery said. “Yes it was fun [but] the whole time I was there, I was in work mode in my head.”

Flanery directed the documentary, which was a nerve wracking and exciting experience. Aside from the media experience, Flanery learned things about water quality that he wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

“I feel like just having the understanding and knowing that it is an issue. Water is a natural resource, it’s not going to be here forever. We need to take care of it. The hypoxia zone is real… that’s what I think is the most important thing to me,” Flanery said. “There’s probably more things wrong with bottled water that we buy than from the faucet, and I didn’t know that until I took Water Quality.”

Nathan DeYoung, a junior meteorology and journalism/telecommunications news major, had worked with Kuban on a previous immersive learning project. When he heard about WQI, he thought it was a good opportunity to combine his studies into one class

“It’s telling a story with science, and that’s what drew me to it,” DeYoung said. “It was so much fun that now I’m considering the potential of doing a career path that would bring me down into science journalism… I think there’s an important place to communicate science, especially with my career goal being broadcast meteorology, I share the science every day to help people make better and informed decisions.”

DeYoung did not know about hypoxia before the project but did know about other effects of nutrient runoff. He used his science background to break down the topic.

“It’s definitely interesting, and now it’s always something that I kinda keep on my mind. Anytime anyone asks me about it, it’s weird to think that I started out with limited knowledge but now I actually know a lot about hypoxia,” DeYoung said. “I met the experts who led the charge of making reforms and making hypoxia a known subject matter rather than this really minute and remote topic.”

Written by Michelle Kaufman