By Taylor Selcke
Mobile applications have revolutionized the way content is packaged and presented in recent years. As communication evolves, the University of Minnesota -- and SJMC in particular -- is working to better prepare students for digital careers upon gradation. Through two new course offerings, students are taking advantage of the opportunity to work with evolving technology.
In fall 2012 semester, SJMC dove headfirst into the revolution with the course WAM App: Creating an App for the Weisman Art Museum. The result was an interdisciplinary collaboration that brought together journalism, art history and design students to develop an interactive platform for the museum on one of the most popular inventions of the past few years: the Apple iPad.
"The WAM App class is an important initiative for SJMC because it demonstrates how we're being innovative and how we are investigating the storytelling aspects of journalism in new 21st century ways," said course adjunct instructor Camille LeFevre. "We're being collaborative by bringing colleges and students to work together toward a common goal."
The course, which spans an academic year, allows students to get hands-on experience in the app development process -- from idea conception to coding. The 13 individuals enrolled spent much of the first semester gathering information, conducting situation analyses and forming app concept pitches to present to the Weisman staff. The spring semester will find them creating the app itself.
"We have been working with WAM directly," said Emily Ehlert, an SJMC senior enrolled in the course. "Working with a client and figuring out what they want is definitely useful."
While Weisman Museum staff will decide on the final content of the app, concepts the students are incorporating include an introductory video from the museum's director and chief curator Lyndel King, information about the museum's history and architecture and maps to the public art around campus. The Weisman's artworks, and how users will engage and interact with the art, will play a large role in the finished product.
"Twenty-thousand people walk by the Weisman every day," LeFevre said. "The Weisman has study space and great artwork to look at. You can pop in for five minutes. One of our charges, per the Weisman staff, is to figure out how the app can engage users and then get them through the door. How do we let them know that art can be a part of everyday life and can be a transformative experience? We want that all to somehow happen with the app so that people will say to themselves, 'I want to go to that museum.'"
During the 2013 May term, students seeking a similar new media experience can register for the fast-paced, three-week course Odyssey in Photojournalism: An iPad Portrait of A Minnesota Town.
When adjunct instructor David Husom began looking for the perfect place to host his new course, he knew he wanted a small town -- "but not too small" -- close to the Twin Cities. After briefly considering locations such as Austin and Wilmar, Husom and co-instructor Mike Zerby decided that Red Wing was the ideal spot.
"We picked Red Wing because there are a gazillion stories there," Husom said. "Everything from sand mining, which is very controversial, to Red Wing Shoes -- the largest American-made shoe company. There's a theater community, there's a pottery studio, it's a port-town. There's just a lot going on, a lot of stories."
Up to 16 students will have the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the city -- sometimes even staying overnight -- and soak up its stories for a period of three weeks. During this time, they will become photojournalists and writers, tracking down the inspiring, engaging narratives that make Red Wing unique.
Husom wants his students to draw inspiration from others in the field. "There was a journalist, Charles Kuralt, who did on-the-road, five-to-10 minute stories on CBS. One guy he found was 'the bicycle man.' He'd go to small towns and find beat up bicycles, fix them up and give them to kids. So the story was how he influenced this town by providing this service. We want to find that kind of stuff, individuals who are interesting, telling a good story."
During this experience, Zerby said that students may have the opportunity to become the subjects of stories themselves, as Red Wing's The Republican Eagle and Twin Cities media will be invited to observe students at work. "Ultimately, the students' work will be offered for publication or broadcast in those same media outlets," he said.
And, of course, the end result of the students' hard work will be a product ready-made for the iPad. Husom and Zerby have not decided whether this project will best be served by publishing an Apple iBook or by employing a platform like The Atavist -- a nonfiction storytelling app -- but both expect this to serve as a portfolio piece for students to show future employers.
"There's precedent in the journalism community for doing a really in-depth study like this, but we're combining that with learning this new technology and coming back with it in a way that's different," Husom said.
While both classes are new to the University, LeFevre and Husom hope to see their courses repeated in future semesters. "I went into the first class and said to the students, 'This is an adventure,'" LeFevre said. "None of us had ever done this before. It's a great learning experience for all of us."
Read the Pioneer Press story about the Weisman Art Museum class.