PUBLIC LAB AND THE CROOKED RIVER

Open technologies foster editorial independence

Munroe Falls Riverside Park

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In JMC’s Web Programming for Multimedia Journalism class, student journalists work in teams with digital science students to create in-depth, innovative and high-tech projects, including this spring’s assignment to document the environmental issues facing the Cuyahoga, or “Crooked,” River.

This project was awarded a grant from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to purchase inexpensive DIY testing kits through the Knight-funded Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science.

The students using the kits observed the river firsthand and enjoyed an experiential learning environment uncommon for most journalism courses.

The spectrometry kits, which the students assembled themselves in class, helped enhance their ability to actively investigate the environmental issues facing the river. While the science behind the Public Lab tools is of an elementary nature, and water testing with the kits is still experimental and in need of refinement, students in journalism classes rarely get to practice niche reporting skills in such a hands-on way.

Photos by Melanie Nesteruk and Susan Kirkman Zake

Mike Kramer’s backyard balloon map

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Creek stomping

Experimenting with the Public Lab tools allowed the students to see the river for themselves and smell the odor from a combined sewer overflow pipe from more than 100 feet away — water polluted with raw sewage from overflowing storm drains, which are combined with sanitary sewers in old systems, continues to be the source of the most problematic pollution in the river.

It’s tough to imagine the scope of the river’s impact from inside a 40 by 40 ft. classroom, so we took the class outdoors for several field days, which the students affectionately called “creek stomping.” We collected water samples to test using color spectrometers and launched a big red balloon with a tethered camera to create our own “Google Earth style photo maps. David Hrvatin, a broadcast news major in the class, said “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t compare part of our adventure to something out of The Magic School Bus.”

The Cuyahoga was among the most polluted rivers in the country and gained worldwide notoriety when it caught fire in 1969. The river has benefited greatly from government regulation and is much cleaner, but still faces many challenges as a “working” river – from urban runoff, from industrial pollutants and from sewer effluent.

We’ll continue studying the river with Public Lab tools into the spring of 2015.

Among other activities, we’re in the early stages of planning our own 24-hour “hackathon” to develop new tools or improve existing ones. We also plan to use additional tools, like thermal photography to examine industrial effluent temperature changes and home testing for endocrine disruptors, since the Cuyahoga is the source of drinking water for many communities in northeast Ohio.

— Susan Kirkman Zake, Assistant Professor

Photos by Melanie Nesteruk and Susan Kirkman Zake