Skip to main content
Expand AU Menu


Water Project Catalyzes Communication Students

Still from

Still from "Olivia" a short film by SOC student Terence Johnson developed with Raise the River

In news, policy, politics and entertainment, water is a hot topic. Safe drinking water. Water scarcity. Pollution and toxic contamination. Conservation and resources management. Hygiene and sanitation.

American University students are mapping the treatment of these issues in their professional fields and producing new reporting, strategic communication campaigns, media productions and communication research through the Water Project, an innovative, experiential cross-disciplinary initiative launched by the School of Communication.

Spearheaded by former SOC Dean Larry Kirkman, the Water Project demonstrates the value of sharing work across academic divisions. “The goal of the Water Project is to engage faculty and students in communicating water problems and solutions - local to global in scope, with scientific, economic, political, legal, and ethical dimensions - and in collaboration with partner organizations, which provide resources and outlets for student work,” says Kirkman.

25 SOC faculty members have embraced the project, which launched in the fall of 2013, agreeing to incorporate water issues into course assignments over the next two academic years. In its first semester, the Water Project has yielded high caliber work for public television, national advocacy organizations and municipal initiatives.

Chesapeake Bay
Building on SOC’s long track record of work around issues related to the Chesapeake Bay, students in journalism, film and public relations courses found new questions to ask, and answer.

A video profile of 15-year old Jamie, from Edgewater, Md., by Gillian Ray, a student in Bill Gentile’s backpack journalism course, tells the story of Jamie’s commitment to preserving the Bay through oyster gardening. Gillian found Jaimie with the help of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, which was responsible for connecting several students to local watershed initiatives that serve as case studies, clients for strategic campaigns and media production, and sources/stories for journalists and documentary makers.

Gillian Ray films Jamie for her documentary short/>
Gillian Ray films Jamie

Graduate journalism student Mary Bowerman investigated the conflict between farmers and environmentalists regarding the regulation of phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed for Angie Chuang’s Reporting of Public Affairs course, which focuses on analyzing and making accessible the real-world impact of federal policy. Bowerman's multimedia timeline tracks the path of regulatory efforts to bring back the Chesapeake Bay beginning with the first recognition of decline in the 1960's to the present struggle to implement environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. Her article and audio podcasts bring to life the passionate debate and deep divisions that the evolving policies have inspired.

Raise the River
Six students received priceless exposure when their PSAs were selected by the Raise the River campaign to be showcased along with the students’ bios throughout the month of February. Several film and media arts classes worked with the Redford Center, part of the Sundance group of organizations, to produce PSAs for RTR, a unique partnership of six well-known U.S. and Mexican non-governmental organizations committed to restoring the Colorado River Delta. Social media promotion by RTR and partner organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy extended the reach of the PSAs to another 650,000 people.

Fish animation
Still from Raise the River PSA created by Brian Kelly

The Redford Center donated all the elements of its Watershed documentary, Executive Produced and Narrated by Robert Redford and Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Mark Decena, with split audio tracks and including outtakes, for use by the students in their productions. Brigid Maher’s class Techniques/Aesthetics of Editing used the footage to produce short webisodes; two pieces from Terence Johnson, Olivia and Ted, and one from Daniela Pérez Frías were among those selected by RTR. Maher says, “Working with the Redford Center on the Raise the River campaign was a remarkable opportunity for students to explore a vital and critical environmental issue and at the same time gain professional experience. This is a great example of the kind of experiences available to students at SOC.” Work from Pedro Carvalho, Brian Kelly, Jason Kurtis, and Wynette Yao was also showcased.

Framing the Debate
Professor Dotty Lynch’s class on strategic communication research methods dove into over a decade’s worth of research commissioned by the Nature Conservancy from top pollsters to identify effective ways to communicate water issues to the public, particularly young people. Lynch reports that “The Conservancy and the pollsters have been over-the-top helpful in sharing the data and analyses, which show how powerful water is for conservation messaging.”

Since 2004, Democratic pollster Dave Metz and Republican pollster Lori Weigel have conducted three national polls, analyzed regional and state polls, and produced recommendations in a summary memo on the “Language of Conservation.”

Metz Skyped with the class to present the findings, explain how they lead to a strategy for communicating conservation, and answer questions. The students produced secondary analyses based on the Conservancy’s data, and conducted focus groups and an online survey, to craft strategy memos on engaging young people. These informed projects in other courses and Lynch’s students acted as consultants for specific film projects.

Last Call at the Oasis

A Call to Action
A touchstone for many classes throughout the project is Academy Award winner Jessica Yu’s documentary Last Call at the Oasis. Chris Palmer, director of SOC’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, said the film inspired his students. “The students in my weekend MA class were stunned by the film. The clarity of its message and the dramatic unfolding of the story gripped their attention.”

Participant Media produced Last Call at the Oasis to establish the global water crisis as the central issue facing our world this century, show communities already struggling with its ill-effects and highlight individuals championing revolutionary solutions. Participant facilitated access to the film for students engaged in the project.

Yu will be a Center for Media and Social Impact visiting artist to SOC April 3 when she will teach a master class for SOC MFA students and later hold a public screening of Last Call with Q&A in SOC’s new Forman Theater and reception to follow. The event is co-sponsored by the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, with support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and in association with the SOC Water Project.

Gaining Momentum
Now in its second semester, the project is attracting even more partners and faculty who want to work with them. Pilar McKay’s public communication students are partnering with the Alice Ferguson Foundation to produce PSAs for the Trash Free Potomac River Watershed Initiative. Investigative reporting students in Professor Chuck Lewis’ course will also be taking on a water issue this semester. A motion graphics class, taught by Kristian Perry, will develop animations and infographics for Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) that tell a revolutionary story: a re-envisioning of the water cycle as we know it. “The assignments give the students a chance to not only work in a client-vendor relationship with the organization, but to take the extra creative step of articulating important ideas persuasively and concisely.” says Perry, whose students worked with RTR in the fall. He looks forward to continuing his work with the Water Project. “It's gratifying to me that some of the students that put the most effort into the project have a chance to have their work presented beyond the classroom. It can become part of a genuine advocacy campaign.”