California Ecology and Conservation program offers students the chance to ‘study abroad’ in CA

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UCEAP’s choices for study abroad can be daunting, with a plethora of program options and places to go available for UC students. One program that might have flown under your radar, however, is one that doesn’t actually require you to leave the country, but rather offers a chance to explore the wide expanse of our very own state.

The semesterly California Ecology and Conservation field program is a study abroad program through UCEAP that isn’t “abroad” in the traditional sense of going overseas instead, students spend their semester away from the UC Berkeley campus traveling throughout California to different sites within the UC Natural Reserve System, or UCNRS.

This fall, which is the fourth year of the program, a cohort of 26 students from all nine UC campuses will partake in the 50-day program, traveling throughout the network of the UCNRS sites, which spans across the entire state as far north as the Angelo Coast Range Reserve and as far south as the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve.

Students in the program will travel to their destinations by van and stay in housing such as tents, cabins and ranch houses, depending on the site. The program is divided into two course components, which come out to 15 semester units and are primarily composed of on-site field research.  

According to Krikor Andonian, one of this semester’s program instructors, the program is fully immersive, as students get the chance to train in research methods hands-on in remote parts of the state.

“The main goals of the course are to provide students with hands-on skills in the process of doing science, to build confidence in science communication. … We also encourage students to explore their interests and work together in teams,” Andonian said in an email.

Another distinct characteristic of the program is that it gives students the chance to explore different regions within California itself. The state is home to eight different biomes, and most major ecosystems are represented among the 39 UCNRS sites, which offer a whole range of flora and fauna.

“We visit very different sites throughout the state, from the driest deserts to the highest alpine regions to some of the wettest Northern California rainforests. This fall, I am most excited about visiting the Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, in part because I have not visited that field site before and also because it is part of a very unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem,” Andonian said in an email.

Alexander Gallandt, a UC Berkeley student, participated in the program in spring of 2018 and said the program helped him formulate some ideas about future research. It also gave him a chance to observe certain ecosystems in more nuanced ways with long-term exposure to different environments.

I really gained a lot from the course. I decided to do the program because I really wanted to become immersed in the systems that I was learning so much about (from) an academic and theoretical perspective; but with little if any context of how these systems truly operate. … This program helped prepare me for my field research this summer in Panama, having done similar types of transects and data collection, although in a much different ecosystem,” Gallandt said in an email.

The course is one of the few UCEAP programs in North America and one of even fewer offered through UCEAP that takes place in the United States. According to Andonian, though the course doesn’t leave the state, it does incorporate elements of the study abroad experience into the program structure.

“Many of the places that we visit are remote wilderness areas and most students have never been in such environments, so a big part of the course involves exploration and travel into uncharted areas, creating a sense of exploration,” Andonian said in an email. “California is so vast with such diverse landscapes that exploring the far reaches of the state can represent a lifetime of exploration.”

He also added that skill-building, such as language acquisition, is often a major part of a study abroad experience, and he said the program aims to mirror this through teaching new scientific methods — a comparable “language” to learn as students travel and do field work.

The course is open to anyone studying in the UC system, though coursework is aimed toward subjects related to outdoor fieldwork. Applications follow a similar timeline as the rest of UCEAP’s programs do, with materials due in October, February and April for the spring, summer and fall sessions, respectively.

Camryn Bell is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there are 13 sites within the University of California Natural Reserve System. In fact, there are 39 reserves within the system.