On a fine morning this coming autumn, 27 UC undergraduates, all strangers, will meet in a parking lot, assemble a small mountain of tents, sleeping bags, notebooks, and backpacks, and head out in a convoy of passenger vans to begin a true educational adventure.
For the next seven weeks, the students of California Ecology and Conservation will tour NRS reserves across the state to experience the cacti of the Mojave Desert, the moist cool of a redwood forest, the ecosystem of a long-isolated archipelago, and the wealth of flora and fauna that call California home.
Along the way, they will master the names of dozens of native plants, identify birds from fleeting silhouettes, piece together why a conifer forest stands on one slope while chaparral covers another, collect data to study the distribution of plants and animals, and uncover for themselves some of the natural processes at work in the most biologically diverse state in the union.
Open to undergraduates at all nine general UC campuses, the NRS course is modeled after UC Santa Cruz’s Ecology and Conservation in Practice (aka “the supercourse” because it’s the one class students enroll in that term). In fact, the first outing of the NRS class will be taught by two of the UCSC supercourse instructors, UCSC professor Don Croll and UCSC NRS Director Gage Dayton.
A life-changing class
Former students call their quarter in the field a pivotal experience in their academic and professional careers.
“It was the most valuable class I took at UCSC,” says Hilary Walecka, a veteran of the spring 2010 supercourse. “You really can’t get a better education than being hands-on and side-by-side with your professors to do research.”
Walecka enrolled in her sophomore year. “I was happy I took the course earlier in my career because I used what I learned in my other classes. The information you get sticks with you a lot longer if you’re there doing it in the field rather than just taking the test and leaving it.”
Marine biology and chemistry major Celia Flores signed up for the spring 2014 supercourse. At first, she hesitated to enroll because it would both postpone her graduation by an additional quarter, and impose a significant financial burden on her family. But her desire to become a well-rounded biologist, and the prospect that she “could be outdoors but and still be studying but also having a good time” won out.
Flores is now certain she made the right call to become a supercourse student. “The class was so worth it. It’s an awesome program. Sometimes money is a burden, but if you can take the class, you should.”
Flores also credits the course with helping her become more self-assured and polished. “I work for a tutoring program. I was not a good public speaker before this class at all. But because we did so many presentations to others I’m so much more confident speaking to my students. I don’t have to say ‘like’ and ‘um,’ and it’s easier for me to communicate with people.”
She urges potential students to weigh the benefits of experience and opportunity. “People can go through college and take only the classes you need and just get out. But that’s not really experiencing many things.”
Bronwen Stanford, a graduate student in UCSC’s environmental studies program, served as a teaching assistant for the spring 2014 class. She says field quarter gives students a glimpse of what it’s actually like to be a researcher.
Students “get a much better sense for what graduate school and field biology looks like. They learn how knowledge is produced. They learn how to approach questions, and what the arc of a whole project from beginning to end looks like,” Stanford says. “For students who enjoy being in the field and are interested in biology, it’s an amazing opportunity.”
The chance to take charge of her own research projects as a scientist also inspired Walecka. “For me the most valuable thing was being able to design, conduct, and analyze our own research projects, all while having fun.”
Being thrown together with instructors and fellow students over meals and around the campfire, plus working in teams to complete one study and report after another, encouraged students to form close friendships. “It was cool to watch how bonded they were socially after finding their fellow science nerds,” former TA Stanford says. “I heard a lot of ‘no one gets me like my supercourse friends do.’”
Being immersed in nature and around scientists for so many weeks seems to shift students into the actual mindset of field scientists. “Supercourse changes the way you think about things. I don’t just see pretty landscapes anymore; now I look at the transitioning habitats, and the different patterns, and how I can quantify my ideas with data collection. It’s being able to see things and turn them into science.”
Walecka still uses what she learned in field quarter in her current life as a graduate student at the UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “My thesis is working on a conservation plan for the Morro Bay National Estuary. I have a good idea of the ecological processes going on there, and this helps me better model the watershed.”
From an office to the outdoors
When environmental studies and sociology major Parker Forman took the supercourse in spring 2012, he was a complete outdoors newbie. “I had never camped outside, had only learned about field work in a class setting and assigned literature, and believed that I would work indoors at a desk job” after graduation.
Instead, Forman found himself applying for, and landing, a field technician internship observing northern spotted owls on multi-day expeditions into the backcountry of Olympic National Park, Washington. After working on invasive species removal, native forest planting, and animal fatality monitoring at a Maui wind farm, Parker is back studying northern spotted owls full time for Point Blue Conservation Science.
Says Parker, “participating in the supercourse redirected my life in a way I could not have possibly anticipated, and in a way I will forever be grateful for.”