Ross May, '14, and Kristiana Haehnle, '14, spent several months in fall 2013 wading and canoeing rivers and streams in east central Indiana, collecting and analyzing sediment to better inform the public about how humans are affected by the quality of water that flows through their communities.

"We want everyone to know that geology happens," says Haehnle, geology major. "Over the past few months, we’ve gone down to Buck Creek and watched the erosion of the creek bank and witnessed how that impacts folks downstream as sediment clogs up the water."

They and about two dozen students from journalism, biology, natural resources, and geology participated in an immersive learning class under the direction of Lee Florea, a geology professor, and Adam Kuban, journalism professor.

"The overarching objective of this immersive endeavor is public understanding of science," Kuban says. "We want area residents to understand how water connects us."

Working on behalf of community partners FlatLand Resources and the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District, students collected water samples along Buck Creek and two waterways it feeds into. Then they analyzed the samples in the Department of Geology labs, providing data for multimedia storytelling.

Students created an interactive website that includes text, graphics, video, audio, and ample pictures to tell the story at each confluence site: the origin of Buck Creek, where Buck Creek merges with the White River in Yorktown, where the two forks of the White River merge, where the White River connects with the Wabash River, and approximately where the Wabash River intersects the Ohio River. In addition, students wrote a policy recommendation for best agricultural practices along Buck Creek to improve water quality.

Better Understanding of Science

As a journalism graphics major, May says he never really appreciated scientific concepts until he sat down with his counterparts from the university’s College of Sciences and Humanities.

"I don’t learn science by reading chapters out of a book, but I learned a great deal by actually going out to the stream and then taking water back to the lab, working side by side with our science majors," he says. "They have helped me learn so much about geology and science. I never expected to be working with them. The main reason I took the class is that it wasn’t in a traditional setting. By going out in the field, I learned so much—sparking my interest in the field."

As a result of this interaction, May developed a 30-second information graphic movie to showcase the research.

Because the water flows down from Delaware County through the White and Wabash Rivers and into the Mississippi, Kuban believes the public should better understand what happens in one part of the country affects those living in other areas.

"We all live downstream from someone," Kuban says. "The findings of our results, along with the territorial restoration of Buck Creek at its confluence with the White River, provides the stories for student-generated multimedia products."

Working Together

While the students worked along area waterways and in labs for several months, it took the Florea and Kuban nearly two years to move the project from the idea stage into a for-credit course.

"The process has certainly taught both of us a great deal about working across disciplinary boundaries and with students of various backgrounds and preparation," Florea says. "Not that the concept is foreign to either of us. We each come from a hybrid background that blends science with public policy. Adam has the perspective of climate, meteorology, and pedagogy, while I have background in physics, quantitative literacy, and environmental policy. Simply put, we make a good team."

Florea believes that success of an immersive learning course occurs when the students are "put in the driver's seat," and the faculty member becomes their mentor, champion, and cheerleader all rolled into one.

"Over my 20 years of teaching experience in secondary, university, and governmental settings, I have grown accustomed to wide ranging interests and backgrounds," he says. "Yet some methods straddle all settings. One is dedication. Another is enthusiasm. Adam and I both share each, and I think many students respond positively to and try to mimic those qualities.

"Another viewpoint can be summarized by the sage advice offered by one of my mentors a few years back. He told me that a faculty member is like a small business where their name is the brand, the students are the employees, and the university is the client."