San Diego State University

San Diego State University

What’s in the Air? Investigating Air Quality in San Diego

San Diego State University is one of the 2014-15 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 12 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


  • Amy Schmitz Weiss, San Diego State University, Associate Professor of Journalism, the School of Journalism and Media Studies
  • Kevin Robinson, San Diego State University, Lecturer, Department of Geological Sciences in the College of Sciences,
  • Lorie Hearn, Executive Director and Editor, inewsource
  • Steve Birch, Sensor Consultant

Visit the What’s in the Air? project website here.

Describe your project as a tweet

What’s in the air in San Diego? SDSU students collaborate with local media to find out. Help us collect the data!

What is your live news experiment?

This is a cross-disciplinary project that will partner journalism and geology students with a nonprofit news organization to examine air quality in San Diego using electronic sensors. The data will be the foundation of a multimedia, mobile-ready website that will share results with and engage the community.

This project will demonstrate that a collaboration among the journalism school and science department and a nonprofit news organization, inewsource, can provide impactful information on the environment to San Diegans. We will measure success through students’ assignments, community interviews, and website analytics.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Collaboration in news gathering and multi-disciplinary teaching are no longer concepts; they are mandates in today’s world. This project is unique and innovative because it underscores both mandates in three ways.

First, the project introduces data gathering with electronic sensors to SDSU’s journalism school. With the rapid evolution of mechanisms to gather and distribute data, sensor journalism is becoming an innovative form for telling important stories in communities. This project is an opportunity not only to teach students to use this technology but to encourage them to think in new ways about news gathering, data collection and verification.

Second, this project allows our journalism students and geology students to work together in a collaborative environment on a shared topic. To date, our students have not had a chance to work with geology students in a formal class setting, but we have seen through previous collaborative informal workshops that students learn from each other. They become more aware and informed about each other’s fields and that helps to inspire them to see the power of collaboration in journalism and the sciences.

Third, this project will allow our journalism students to work on a live news experiment with inewsource, a news nonprofit in San Diego. Our students will have a major role in a project, the kind of role that they could not experience through internships or freelance work.

How will you collaborate?

Journalism students, journalism/science faculty, and geology students will collaborate in all aspects of the project. They will begin to meet weekly in the fall of 2014 to plan the project and design a class that will be offered in the spring of 2015.

During the fall, the journalism/science faculty will work with inewsource in identifying the EPA data of troubled air quality areas in San Diego and select prescreened locations for the sensors.

The class in the spring will include both journalism and geology students and will be taught by faculty from both schools, the sensor consultant and the inewsource team, which includes an investigative journalist with data expertise.

The class will meet twice a week and will have a set of milestones to meet each month.

What technology platforms will you use?

Open-source sensor technology – creation of air sensors using Arduino technology and additional equipment; data collection using cloud computing platform such as Google docs and data visualization tools like Google Fusion Tables; websites created through basic installation for the class blog and the live news experiment project website; video cameras through iPads or smartphone apps will be used to capture video for the news stories; audio will be captured through smartphone apps for the news stories.

How will this project provide an educational experience for students above and beyond their current learning?

This project is one-of-a-kind, as our school has never done this kind of live news experiment. Our current journalism curriculum focuses on training our students in digital and social media techniques through classes and internships.

While we believe that this learning forms the underpinnings of a media career, the school increasingly recognizes that students must be familiar with tools that are radically changing the media landscape. The school believes that multi-disciplinary teaching reflects the real world and better prepares students for a role in a morphing industry.

This project gives students an unprecedented opportunity to step outside the traditional curriculum and learn in a new way. It exposes journalism students to science and to a new form of news gathering and reporting through sensors. The geology students will see first-hand the potential public benefit of their expertise. Students will have hands-on mentorship and guidance from a news organization.

What are the real challenges you face in implementing this?

Preliminary research tells us that the EPA data on air quality in San Diego is inconsistent so it will require a lot of time drilling down into the data. The EPA and the County of San Diego have 14 air monitoring stations that gather data from a larger area.

Our intention is to provide information on a much more granular (neighborhood) level and to use this as a teaching tool. Obviously, our sensors won’t be nearly as sophisticated as what the agency uses but provides a granular level that engages the community in the project. Persuading private residents to participate in the live data-gathering project will require trust-building and a reliable network of communication. Many of our target neighborhoods likely are made up of predominately non-English speakers, which will mean careful coordination with team members who are conversant especially in Spanish.

If this project works, how might the media organization and academic institution change its practices?

This project will demonstrate the power of collaborations between the journalism school and other SDSU departments, and between SDSU and outside news organizations. Success would definitely pave the wave for other live news experiments by showcasing a credible product and proving the value in the community of the work. SDSU will be considered an innovator in both multi-disciplinary teaching and in its approach to news gathering and distribution.

This project could be the foundation for best practices for partnerships internally and externally, making it easier to initiate them in the future.

The San Diego State University team provided an update on its project in a July 2015 report. The following are excerpts from that report.

Update: What is the most important impact of your experiment? Any new collaborators?

We launched the webpage “What’s in the Air” and published the students’ work there during the past six months. This section includes an interactive sensor map and a number of stories the students wrote. Students also produced two explanatory videos about air quality, which provided them with an opportunity to share their science education with the community and to demonstrate video shooting and editing capability. These videos enhance the online experience considerably.

Other successes in the classroom: several students embraced the training in data collection and analysis; others were enthusiastic about using ArcGIS. We also were able to reach out to the community and have several people participate in collecting air quality data from their backyards.

Some important guest speakers visited the class to share their insights about the role of sensors in science and journalism. In particular, Sean Bonner from SafeCast came to campus in March and talked about the power of crowdsourcing sensor data for environmental purposes in class and in a university-wide lecture. We were also able to extend our collaborations beyond the College of Sciences and into the Graduate School of Public Health involving some of their faculty and students in calibration of the air-quality sensor kits.

As a result of this project, we were able to establish an informal connection with faculty members in the Graduate School of Public Health who are doing air quality monitoring. In addition, several people from the community participated in this project. A few members expressed interest in helping us to move this project further by suggesting another iteration of the sensor kit. We are currently exploring other funding opportunities to keep this project going.