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College of Media and Bellaire High School students partner on environmental reporting project

Students photograph area in Ohio Valley
Students take photos in the Ohio Valley (photo by Bellaire High School student Raven Pettigrew)

During the spring semester, WVU Reed College of Media students assisted students from Bellaire High School in Ohio with a year-long photography project to document and explore their surrounding community.

Teaching Associate Professor David Smith led the independent study course along with Rebecca Kiger, photojournalist and artist-in-residence at Bellaire High School.

“Working with K-12 students in the region is extremely rewarding,” said Smith. “I feel like we can make an impact on their learning and also provide our College of Media students with new experiences and meaningful relationships that help connect them to Appalachia. Some of our students are from West Virginia, but don’t usually get the opportunity to travel far from Morgantown to put their skills to work helping others, telling stories and building connections. Projects like these are really valuable and prove our worth as a community-engaged college and university.”

College of Media students with Professor David Smith
Clockwise from back: David Smith, Tolu Olasoji, Chase Hughart, Sean McCallister, Miya Lantz, Emilee Kessler

College of Media students Chase Hughart (BSJ, 2023), Emilee Kessler (BSJ, 2023), junior Miya Lantz, Sean McCallister (MSJ, 2023) and Tolu Olasoji (MSJ, 2023) met with Smith weekly in Morgantown to study aerial photography and video fundamentals. They then traveled to Ohio for on-the-ground reporting.

Under the supervision of Smith and Kiger, WVU and Bellaire students used drones to capture aerial visuals for several stories the high school students had been working on during the academic year. The project, which is supported by an environmental reporting grant from the Center for Contemporary Documentation and the Ohio Arts Council, focuses on the nearby community as well as how the region has been impacted by industry and pollution over time.

The Bellaire students documented the 50th anniversary of a local bicycle shop; the historic Great Stone Viaduct, a polluted brownfields site that was remediated and converted into a public space with a walking trail; the return of a nearly extinct crayfish in Ohio creeks; and a former Bellaire Elementary librarian who is committed to picking up trash and beautifying the town.

Bellaire and Reed College of Media students also visited coal slurry ponds, power plants and chemical and material storage facilities to better understand air and water quality issues. The drone photography captured the proximity of industrial manufacturing, transportation and storage to residential areas and schools.

Smith, Kiger and students at photo installation
Emilee Kessler, Miya Lantz, Rebecca Kiger, Sean McCallister and David Smith at the photo installation near Bellaire High School

“Drone photography gives us larger perspectives,” Olasoji said. “It provides a portrait of the community alongside the environmental issue, which elevates an audience’s understanding in a way that traditional photographs cannot. It shows how physically close to and potentially affected a community is by environmental damage. I believe drone photography has a huge role to play in environmental reporting.”

Olasoji and McCallister also documented the aftermath of the East Palestine train derailment. Their photographs were published by The Washington Post on February 14.

“WVU has truly prepared me for any challenges I could face in my first job out of school,” said McCallister, who was hired as a multimedia specialist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “The tools and experience I have gained from my courses at the Reed College of Media are second to none. Gaining experience in covering a national story such as the East Palestine train derailment by placing students in the center of a developing news story with a direct impact on the surrounding communities is incredibly valuable to a young journalist.”

At the conclusion of the course, the College of Media students passed their FAA Part 107 Drone Licensure Exam and became licensed drone pilots.

“The most important thing I took away from the course was an appreciation for aerial photography,” added McCallister. “Before this class, I had never piloted a drone or captured any aerial video or photos. I was unaware of how having a drone shot in your story could paint a better picture for your audience. Passing the drone pilot licensing exam at the end of the semester was the goal for all of us in the course.”

The students’ work was displayed at a public photo installation in a park next to Bellaire High School on May 17. View photos from the exhibit here.