what's in the air
Aerial photo of San Diego. Sam Hodgson

What’s in the air in San Diego?

Journalism and geology students are tackling that question in a unique class at San Diego State University that will involve San Diegans in testing air quality in their neighborhoods.

Students are building electronic open-source sensors to test and monitor air quality. They will share the sensors with residents in six mid-city communities, collect the data and then write about the results.

Amy Schmitz Weiss, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies, has taken the lead in the project, which is financed with a special grant that encourages innovation in journalism education.

“This class aims to explore and open a dialog about air quality in San Diego. We are excited to have the students collaborate with the Geology department and inewsource,” Schmitz Weiss said. “Using the latest open-source sensor technology, GIS and data-driven journalism techniques, we will be able to tell some unique stories about San Diego’s air.”

The class is a partnership between the School of Journalism and Media Studies and the Department of Geological Sciences at SDSU, and inewsource, an independent nonprofit news organization. inewsource is participating in the teaching, the data analysis and the publication of the students’ findings on its website.

A sensor assembled by students in the class. Credit to Leo Castaneda.

Lorie Hearn, executive director of inewsource, said this class is an important part of the nonprofit’s mission.

“We report and write investigative projects for the good of the San Diego region,” Hearn said. “But mentoring journalism’s next generation, particularly at SDSU, is a dual mission. This class is teaching students tools they can use in today’s rapidly evolving journalism world.”

The class is a major commitment to the 12 students in it, who are a mix of journalism and geology majors.

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Journalism professor Schmitz Weiss and geology lecturer Kevin Robinson teach the class twice a week, bringing together their journalism and earth sciences expertise. They are joined by Steve Birch, a consultant who is helping students build and operate the sensors they’ll use throughout the project.

“This is the first interdisciplinary course focused on field-based Earth investigation and science communication,” Robinson told SDSU NewsCenter.

Hearn and inewsource data journalist Joe Yerardi will help students analyze and report stories on the data collected by the sensors. Students’ stories will be published in a specially-designed page on inewsource.org.

“We report and write investigative projects for the good of the San Diego region,” Hearn said.

The spring semester class started in late January. So far students have discussed the ethics of sensor journalism when it comes to issues such as privacy and community involvement. They have learned multimedia and digital media storytelling techniques. They’ve also started learning about data journalism and data visualization through Legos with Yerardi and Robinson showed students how to create GIS maps.

The partnership between SDSU professors and inewsource was one of only 12 projects nationally to win a $35,000 grant from the Online News Association. It charged the 125 applicants with hacking the journalism curriculum in the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. The fund was created to encourage universities to experiment with journalism education, creating projects based on the “teaching hospital model.”

It is a collaboration among the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

The Challenge Fund is planned for multiple years. Initial funders have committed $920,000 to the overall Fund and plan to support as many as 25 projects over the next two years in a competitive entry system.

Community members interested in getting involved in this project can contact. Schmitz Weiss at sensorjournalism.wordpress.com and fill out this request form.

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Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.