Above: Researchers exploring Big Creek Reserve | Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
Gray wisps of fog fled toward the ocean above Big Creek canyon as 20 undergraduates from around the U.S. hiked through an area ravaged last year by fire and flood. Charred redwood and green undergrowth lined a gravel-choked stream bed.
“Look,” said Abe Borker, program director for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at UC Santa Cruz, pointing upward at a small bird perched on a sycamore branch, a butterfly in its beak.
“That’s an olive-sided flycatcher,” said Borker as the diverse collection of scholars craned their heads back to get a view. Borker (Ph.D. ’18, ecology and evolutionary biology), gave a mnemonic—“quick, three beers!”—as a way to remember the bird’s call and then demonstrated the proper way to use binoculars to spot birds in the field.
The sighting was more than just a Wild Kingdom moment for students in the Doris Duke program. Rather, it was an example of a growing effort on the UC Santa Cruz campus to retain students in underrepresented groups in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors by providing early field-research opportunities—the outgrowth of a 2020 UC Santa Cruz study which, authors said, may help change the face of these fields by making them more diverse.
The study, which covered more than 29,000 UC Santa Cruz students admitted from 2008 to 2019, found that field courses boosted the confidence of all students, but especially those from underrepresented groups, who according to a 2019 University of Texas study, leave STEM majors at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts. The UC Santa Cruz study also found students from marginalized groups who took field courses were more likely to remain in their major and graduate with a higher GPA.
With global problems like climate change and disease outbreaks looming, creating a diverse community of thinkers is crucial to solving those challenges, UC Santa Cruz researchers said.
And, according to Erika Zavaleta, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and senior author of the study, UC Santa Cruz is perfectly poised to be at the forefront of this effort. With inquiry in the campus’s DNA, its designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, and five natural reserves totaling more than 10,000 acres of wildland, the campus has all it needs to create a diverse cadre of scientists, teachers, and leaders for the future, she said.
UC’s Natural Reserve System started nearly 60 years ago when the post–World War II baby boom flooded the University of California with eager students. Campuses started filling open spaces with concrete, glass, and pavement in order to accommodate the surge, according to Gage Dayton, UC Santa Cruz Natural Reserves director and holder of the Wilton W. Webster Jr. Presidential Chair.
Enter the late Ken Norris, a UC Santa Cruz natural history professor, who, in 1963, proposed the idea of creating a University of California Natural Reserve System to serve both as outdoor classrooms and living laboratories. Today, there are 41 UC Natural Reserves scattered throughout California. Four of them, along with a campus reserve, lie under the purview of UC Santa Cruz.
The reserves range from Año Nuevo, where UC Santa Cruz scientists do groundbreaking research on elephant seals, to the rich ecosystem of Younger Lagoon, the maritime-chaparral landscape of the former Fort Ord near Seaside, and the rugged Big Creek area in Big Sur, where freshwater streams run through redwood forest to kelp forest. UC Santa Cruz even has a 400-acre reserve on its own campus, where a visitor might find students from majors as varied as art and biology learning under a canopy of green.
“UC Santa Cruz has a long history of supporting biological, environmental, and physical sciences as well as many other disciplines,” Dayton said. “Our undergraduates can work with marine mammals like elephant seals at Año Nuevo in the morning and be back in chemistry class in the afternoon.”
Which, combined with UC Santa Cruz’s roots as a place created to buck the stodginess of traditional educational institutions, embrace innovation and inquiry, and make learning exciting again, sets it up as the right place to kickstart change, Zavaleta said.
Providing the spark
Arriving to work on an all-terrain vehicle, Mark Readdie (Crown ’96, biology; Ph.D. ’04, marine sciences), resident director of the Big Creek Reserve, paused for a moment to remember Norris.
Which was a centerpiece of what the eight-week summer Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program was doing. In its sixth year at UC Santa Cruz, the program assembles exceptional rising sophomores and juniors from underrepresented groups in STEM—racial/ethnic minorities, first-generation students, or the financially disadvantaged—and brings them to a variety of UC reserves. There, these emerging young conservation leaders conduct a series of hands-on research projects of their own choosing. The program then follows them for a total of two years, providing mentors, assistance, and internships, and building community. It’s that first foray into nature, however, that provides the spark.
On a mid-July morning, for instance, the scholars roamed Big Creek’s steep central canyon, accompanied by three UC Santa Cruz graduate students, Readdie, and Borker. Notebooks, magnifying glasses, and binoculars in hand, the students watched a ladybug crawl on a thimbleberry leaf, noticing how its cute exterior belied its role as a predator. They heard how, after the 128,000-acre Dolan Fire roared through the reserve in 2020, a January rainstorm dumped 16 inches of rain in 48 hours, causing massive flooding with side effects like plant relocation, which was why a spiny lupin was spotted growing near the creek mouth instead of the mineralized hillside where it usually thrived.
Honing skills, gaining confidence
The task on the morning ramble was for students to discover a topic that interested them before they spent the next few days observing, creating hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting their findings to the group. Because each of these mini-research projects was short, the scholars were able to complete more than one study, which allowed them to hone their skills, see improvement in their methods, and, thus, gain confidence, Zavaleta said. Instead of sponges designed to soak up learning, they became discoverers.
Their excitement was palpable.
Roxanne Beltran, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the 2020 study on field courses and STEM diversity, remembered what she called “the math-science death march” during her first two years of college when she sat in required lecture classes like chemistry, physics, math, and biology and wondered if she’d made a mistake.
Then, she took a field-research class with Zavaleta and Dayton.
Indeed, according to her research, students from underrepresented groups who dropped out of the major usually did it within the first 12–18 months of arriving at college.
“It’s a problem for science if we drive students out of the majors they hoped to complete,” she said.
“Prior to [the Doris Duke program], the whole academic world was a bit confusing,” said Ayman Omar, 20, who was busy taking field notes as Readdie described the aftereffects of the Dolan Fire. Omar, who is majoring in environmental analysis and media studies with a minor in Africana studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., said, “Coming here puts an image of the things you learned in books in your head. It makes sense of what is going on in the classroom.”
A sense of belonging
Besides fueling self-confidence and making sense of textbooks and lectures, field courses also provide a feeling of belonging—something especially important for those who might not see themselves reflected in STEM majors, according to Beltran and Zavaleta.
Sitting at a folding table at the Big Creek Reserve, the woosh of nearby traffic on Highway 1 a backbeat to her words, Zavaleta described her own experience of being what she called “the only”: The only person of color in a classroom, the only one who didn’t read a certain book in high school or go on vacation. The only person who never hiked in the woods.
As the child of immigrants from India and Bolivia, for instance, Zavaleta said, “they spent a lot of time and energy having a roof over their heads, and to go out and not have a roof [go camping] was not something we did for fun.
“The place you go if you are the only one in the room is sometimes to the feeling that you don’t belong,” Zavaleta said. “There’s a lot packed into what it means to feel like you belong in a field or a room or even a university. Some of it is finding your people.”
That sense of belonging appears to be an important factor in student success. A 2021 UC Santa Cruz study conducted by a team of economists and chemists, for instance, found diversity among graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) may be a big factor in keeping marginalized undergraduate students in STEM majors. Data from more than 4,000 students over a five-year period showed course drop rates for students from underrepresented groups decreased from 6 percent to 0.5 percent and pass rates increased from 93 percent to 98 percent when their TA came from an underrepresented group.
“Community is very important for people of color,” said Ianna Gilbert, 18, who is majoring in environmental studies and computer science at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and grew up in Queens, N.Y. “It decreases the imposter syndrome and helps create a more inclusive environment. It builds confidence.”
In fact, the UC Santa Cruz study showed that while students from marginalized groups rated their own sense of abilities lower before they took a field-research course, afterward their sense of their own capacity was equal to or ahead of their non-underrepresented peers.
For Maudesty Merino, 19, who is studying environmental science and ecological restoration at Humboldt State University, building a community is crucial. Walking up the dusty canyon road, notebook in hand, Merino said she grew up in a small-town tribal community in Northern California. Her mother is Mountain Maidu from the Susanville Indian Rancheria and her father belongs to an unrecognized tribe, she said.
“It’s been interesting to come here and see a different perspective on ecology,” said Merino. “I’m interested in learning about Western knowledge because I’m focused on traditional knowledge about restoration.”
“To make a bridge with others so we can work together in the future,” she said.
Like Merino, 19-year-old Jonathan Kwong, who identified as being of Chinese and Japanese heritage and who grew up in Guam, is interested in traditional ecological knowledge.
“The personal connection here has given me more confidence in the [scientific] process,” said Kwong, who is majoring in environmental science and resource management at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s cool that we come from all different backgrounds and are able to connect.”
In the driver’s seat
The Doris Duke program isn’t the only field-research option centered on the environment and based at UC Santa Cruz. The campus’s Center to Advance Mentored, Inquiry-based Opportunities in Ecology and Conservation also helps students prepare to take leadership roles in conservation and environmental fields. In addition, the university offers BIOE 82, a popular introduction to field research course that meets once a week with two overnight field trips to nearby reserves. Scheduled six times a year, despite fluctuating funding, it’s designed to give students—from science students to creative writing majors—a chance to design and carry out their own research projects.
“It puts them in the driver’s seat,” said Beltran.
Both Zavaleta and Beltran believe increasing field-course opportunities and lowering enrollment costs need to be a priority in order to foster diversity in ecology and conservation fields.
For Anthony Julian Gomez, a wildlife conservation biology major from Humboldt State University who grew up in Oxnard, the chance to do field research reignited his love for the outdoors.
“I want to do research around wildlife in urban areas of Southern California,” said Gomez. “I want to open doors to the outdoors for youth, just as those doors were opened for me.