First Cohort (2015-2017)

Intellectual discovery through field-based student research projects in Death Valley

Nicholas Swanson-Hysell (Earth & Planetary Sciences)

This project integrated a substantive field study research experience into an existing course taught within the Earth and Planetary Science Department entitled “Stratigraphy and Earth History” (EPS 115). In contrast to field trips that are conducted in a “show and tell” style focused on transmitting content, this project provided students with a legitimate research enterprise focused on student-led discovery. Students in the course conducted research projects in small groups within an impressive natural laboratory for Earth Science—Death Valley—in the context of an 8-day field trip. Death Valley is a natural laboratory for the understanding of a crucial period of Earth history known as the Neoproterozoic, when animals emerged on Earth’s surface and during which there were the most extreme shifts in climate that have been documented in the geologic record. The combination of well-exposed rocks in Death Valley and their connection to some of the most exciting research avenues in Earth history today make these rocks an exciting focus for proposing and testing hypotheses.

For the Death Valley trip, held over spring break during the Spring 2016 semester, students were accompanied, supervised, and mentored by Dr. Swanson-Hysell, another faculty member, and a graduate student. Students worked on research projects in small groups collecting field data and samples. Students were then able to generate data within labs in the EPS Department and Berkeley’s Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry. In this way, the course was able to replicate the arc of the research trajectory. Throughout the course, including before, during, and after the field trip, students obtained direct experience with each phase of scholarly research.

GC-Maker: Building Your Own Analyzer for Environmental Research

Robert Rhew (Geography)

The aim of this project was the creation of a unique, two-semester program that teaches students how to design and construct a fundamental tool in the environmental sciences—the gas chromatograph (GC). Gas chromatography is a widely used method to identify and quantify trace amounts of chemicals; it is used by researchers in academia, crime labs, drug companies and government labs. Cutting-edge technologies are often verified against the GC, given the reliability and versatility of this method. Despite the broad utility of the GC, students do not often have access to this tool. This limits what students can choose for senior thesis topics, dissertations, etc. and, more importantly, limits their ability to tackle independent research questions after completing their degree. By providing students with the guidance and knowledge to construct their own GC, this course has the potential to open many doors for Berkeley students.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, Dr. Rhew conducted a trial run of the course with just three students recruited from URAP. A full-blown course is currently underway with eleven enrolled students. The course is open to students from all levels, although most students are undergraduates. The first semester of the course covers theory, design and material choices for constructing a GC. Students start with a proposal to measure specific compounds of interest and research how those compounds can be measured by a GC. The Spring semester will be laboratory based, where teams of students will actually construct a functioning GC from “scratch”.  Students will be challenged to work within a limited budget to purchase or acquire a used instrument along with the relevant components (valves, gas lines, sample loops, carrier gases, software, metering gauges and electronics) to make it work. This instrument will then ideally be used for independent research projects for the students (senior theses and Ph.D.s) with the goal of teaming up graduate students with undergraduates on related projects. A “side effect” of this project has been the creation of a “Maker Space” in McCone Hall, by converting a room used primarily for storage into a versatile workspace with tools, workbenches, lighting, and moveable tables. This space can be used for the class and broader purposes.

The UC Berkeley-Owens Valley Paiute Project: Restoring a Lost Cultural Heritage

Patricia Steenland (College Writing Programs)

This project involved the creation of a seminar that brought together young people from the Owens Valley Paiute community with UC Berkeley undergraduates to study a body of Pauite materials housed at Cal, providing students with hands-on research experience with primary sources and community members. The seminar was conducted as a version of Dr. Steenland’s course “Researching Water in the West.” The class looks at the story of the Owens Valley water wars, a story famously memorialized in the movie “Chinatown.” For four years, Dr. Steenland has been working with Harry Williams, an Owens Valley Paiute tribal elder to provide an essential corrective to this narrative. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the Owens Valley Paiute engineered the Valley’s water flow into a sophisticated system of irrigation canals. Historical documentation for this ancient system resides in the Bancroft library. Curator Theresa Salazar works with students in the class to design primary source research topics addressing this part of history widely omitted from the official record.

For the current project, the focus was on a body of Paiute materials stored in the Bancroft that reflect oral histories and stories among the Paiute people obtained by anthropologists in 1935. Some of the informants were well over 70 years old at the time. Their stories were told as a means to transmit knowledge to their youth. These stories exist in fragile notebooks at Bancroft. People in the Valley have heard of their existence, but have not read them. It is hard to overestimate the importance of these stories to the Paiute people—stories that have been lost to them due to cultural disruption and other obstacles. The major highlight of the course was a conference held in February 2016, when eight tribal members descended from the original 1935 participants came to campus to see the notebooks in person for the first time and to work with students in the course. Tribal members shared their knowledge, insight, and experience with students in small break-out sessions and round table conversations. This event, which marked the first UC Berkeley-Owens Valley Paiute gathering, not only constituted the culmination of a substantial research experience for students enrolled in the course, but also served as a moving inter-generational transmission of knowledge for the Pauite and as a way to honor Pauite ancestors’ contributions to scholarship. The hope is that the seminar will be the first of a series of ongoing exchanges between the university and people of the Valley. Moreover, the course could serve as a model to other public universities in the West for creating an alliance and joint project between a public university and native peoples of its state.

PREP-IP:  Research Experiences for Work-study Engineering Students in Their First Year at Berkeley

Oscar Dubon (Engineering)


This project sought to provide substantive research opportunities for students in the Pre-Engineering Program (PREP), Berkeley Engineering’s “summer-bridge” experience for entering students who recognize that their academic preparation in high school was limited and are strongly motivated to learn skills that will make them successful students at Berkeley. During the summer before their first year, PREP students undergo an intensive academic experience that is intended to better prepare them to take their first math and physics courses at Berkeley. The focus of PREP is to give first-generation, low-income, and historically underrepresented students, among others, a leg up on course content and to instill in its participants academic confidence through improved study habits and community building with peers. While PREP students are eager to pursue research opportunities, real obstacles prevent their participation—specifically, the need to work to offset educational expenses. This project piloted an extension of PREP called PREP-IP (Industrial Practice). The idea was to extend the current PREP experience with an entirely new dimension: engineering-related work study appointments during the students’ first year. These appointments were hands-on positions in research labs across campus and in the community.

PREP-IP was brought to life during the 2015-2016 academic year, involving the placement of 14 students (all of color) in 2-5 hours/week work-study appointments. Students chronicled their efforts and experiences through their appointments, and obtained one-on-one mentoring from Dr. Catherine Newman, a graduate of Cal’s engineering Ph.D. program and primary point person for this project. Throughout the year, students also met with professors, professionals, and graduate students to discuss career options (e.g., LBNL, Google, MIT, Pandora, Disney, Georgia Tech), and all participating students applied for multiple summer internship or research opportunities. The work-study appointments were wide-ranging, including, College of Chemistry, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab,  and BART. Dr. Newman has continued the program this year in scaled back form (due to limited funds) with workshops and more group-based mentoring and guidance in obtaining work-study appointments that provide research opportunities. 

Download the Collegium’s assessment of the first cohort of funded projects

Return to full list of awards and recipients