Taking flight: Drone, digital tools prepare students for jobs

From left: Genesis Lara, Amanda Oien, Karen Cruz-Orduña, professors Celeste González de Bustamante and Michael McKisson, Maritza Dominguez, Brenna Bailey and Jennifer Hijazi practice flying a drone in Arivaca at a ranch owned by Jon Rowley, a member of the school's Journalism Advisory Council.
   • Watch students' drone video 


Drone: The foot-long DJI Phantom 4 is equipped with GPS technology and a high-definition camera. Professor Michael McKisson oversees students as they fly it. Above is the equipment he took on the school’s trip to Canada.

360 cameras: Video in every direction is recorded at the same time, and the footage is stitched to form a single view that uses a 3D environment to convey the sights and sounds of the news. The video can be seen on a smartphone or virtual reality goggles.

DSLR cameras: The kits have two lenses, a professional-quality tripod and a lapel mic. Students in Professor Rogelio Garcia’s broadcast classes also have access to professional-level HD video cameras.

Sensors: The devices, which can attach to a small Raspberry Pi computer, collect information on air, water, light and noise.

Recorders: From lavalieres to other mics and devices, students can record high-level audio, as Brenna Bailey (with mic below) and other students did while interviewing a Canadian Border Patrol agent.

Finding new ways to tell a story — from hundreds of feet in the air — students used drone videography and 360-degree virtual reality to compare security in U.S. border regions along Mexico and Canada.

It’s all part of the School of Journalism’s push to make sure students have the digital training needed when they go for an internship or job.

They have access to a drone, a 360-degree camera, professional DSLR cameras that shoot video, recorders, updated computer labs with the latest software and hands-on courses — from multimedia and photojournalism to broadcast and entrepreneurial journalism and mobile-app development.

“When students look for jobs, not many will be able to say what these students can: ‘I worked with a drone and other technology, and I went two borders and covered this very important issue of migration and security,’ ” said Associate Professor Celeste González de Bustamante.

Her “Reporting in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands” class — with help from Professor Michael McKisson — compared the border areas of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, with those of Sweet Grass, Montana, and Coutts, Alberta.

During the fall 2016 semester, students spent Mondays in Nogales and traveled on a five-day trip to Canada, using drone footage, photography and audio to bolster their reporting on the project.

“This trip was the best experience ever,” said Karen Cruz-Orduña, who went to Canada along with Genesis Lara, Amanda Oien, Maritza Dominguez, Brenna Bailey, Jenny Hijazi and Julia León.

McKisson, who earned his FAA Small Unmanned Aircraft pilot certification, taught students how to fly the drone in Sonora. They also prepared for the trip by visiting an Amado cattle ranch owned by Jon Rowley, a 1966 alum and member of the school’s Journalism Advisory Council.

“Students not only learned how to use drones and 360 cameras, along with traditional audio, video and photography, they learned how to use the tools to tell important stories,” Bustamante said.

“And having a drone to shoot video allowed students to see a bird’s-eye view of the U.S-Canadian border, which helped them understand the distinctions between our country’s northern and southern borders.”

Students interviewed citizens and local officials in Mexico and Canada to gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing both borders, such as migration and trade. In Canada, they also visited Glacier National Park and shot drone footage of bison.

“It’s easy to talk to an expert or two on the phone, but they were able to talk to the farmers, business owners and residents that have had their lives impacted by the decisions made by the U.S. and Canadian governments,” McKisson said.

Bustamante said only small metal markers separated parts of the two communities of Sweet Grass and Coutts – and “that really struck the students.

“In other areas,” she said, “the dirt Border Road divided the two countries. The southern border is much more militarized.”

The project, a brainstorm of McKisson and Bustamante, took the top spot in the School of Journalism’s first engagement grant competition last year. Journalism alumnus Al Litzow, who has a keen interest in science journalism, funded the grant.

“From an educational perspective, it’s a real thrill to be able to teach students how to use the latest tools, which will help them get jobs when they graduate,” McKisson said.

Students produced multimedia projects — with print and online material, such as videos, charts and maps — and presented them in late November during a research symposium at Special Collections near the Main Library.

Bustamante said the students' work also could be part of Security 360°, the school’s joint multimedia series with the Tucson Weekly that explores the effect of increasing militarization along the U.S-Mexico border.

 “I can’t wait to start working on new projects that will allow us to make this type of experience a reality for more students,” McKisson said. “This trip was only the beginning.”

School of Journalism students used drone photography to compare the U.S. borders of Mexico (left) and Canada.