Wanted: student scientists looking for inspiration and adventure


Ecogeo students raft down the Tuolumne River. Photo courtesy of Carson Jeffres.

By Sarah Yarnell and Ann Willis

Every spring for the past 12 years, a class of a dozen or so UC Davis undergraduates ride a river in the American West for a learning adventure like none other in their college life.


Ecogeo student snorkeling in the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows of Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Carson Jeffres.

Whether rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, plying the undammed Skeena in British Columbia or paddling the Kobuk in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, the educational strategy has charted the same course:

Take the pieces of environmental science that students learned sporadically in their introductory courses and apply them holistically to a watershed, so they see – usually for the first time – how they all fit together.

Academics call this a “capstone course” because it ties together the key concepts that faculty expect students to have learned in their major. The interdisciplinary emphasis is reflected in the course’s original über-syllabic name, Ecogeomorphology.


Ecogeo student writing her flog (field log) next to a serene waterfall. Photo courtesy of CWS.

This year it’s called “Ecogeomorphology of the Tuolumne River: Source to Sea.”

Applications are currently being accepting for the Spring 2016 quarter for the undergraduate class, and for the Spring 2017 graduate class. Rather than go on about why we love offering this class, we asked ecogeo alumni for feedback:


Ecogeo student admiring the White Cascade view at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Photo courtesy of CWS.

“I can undoubtedly say that this class was and will continue to be the highlight of my undergraduate career, and the perfect culmination of all the knowledge and skills that I’ve gained while attending UCD. By bringing together students of different educational backgrounds, we were given a taste of what it’s like in the “real world” outside of the enclosed bubbles we students sometimes find ourselves in within our majors. We learned to collaborate across disciplines, teach each other, and communicate effectively as scientists. This was an experience unique to this class that I know will be greatly beneficial in any path I choose to take in the future, because if you can’t collaborate and communicate with peers, what can you accomplish?” – Undergraduate in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology


Frog eggs are among many of signs of wildlife observed on the ecogeo trip. Photo courtesy of CWS.

“Thank you for helping me finish my college career here at UC Davis with the best class I have ever taken.  This class tied together and cemented concepts I have been learning for 4 years as an [Environmental Science and Management] major with a watershed science emphasis.   The field work we did on Putah Creek, the American River, and the Tuolumne River is much more memorable and tangibly scientific than any other class has given me.  The multi-disciplinary emphasis of the class created very interesting dialogue between the students and really engrained how the biological and physical processes interact.  To speak with entomologists, fish experts, hydrologists, geologists, and wildlife specialists brought me a deeper understanding of each of those disciplines. This class is a unique learning experience that should be a source of pride for UC Davis.”  – Undergraduate in Environmental Science and Management

“We, as the future scientists of the world, must be properly prepared and trained for how things occur outside of the classroom setting.  Without that knowledge, we risk limiting ourselves and our projects, and becoming poor representatives of the UC Davis scientific community.  There is a large difference here, in my mind, between class lessons and “learning by doing”. Collecting data in the field puts the active environmental process into a new context, which is essential for proper scientific understanding and analysis of the project.” – Undergraduate in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology

By the end of this course, students have seen how their work is inextricably integrated with other professionals who are addressing related issues with different skill sets. This means that class participants must assume the role of both student and teacher, learning from and educating their peers. Combined with the physical experience of exploring a watershed, Ecogeomorphology provides students with the kind of inspiration that creates leaders and revolutionizes entire disciplines.

Applications for the Spring 2016 undergraduate class are currently being accepted through late February 2016. The deadline to apply for the Winter 2017 graduate class is this Thursday, February 11, 2016.

Sarah Yarnell is an associate project scientist with  the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Her studies focus on integrating hydrology, ecology and geomorphology in river environments. Ann Willis is a staff researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Her studies focus on integrating hydrology, ecology, and water quality in river environments.

Further reading

Ecogeomorphology: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences course site. See previous class trips and research produced by interdisciplinary student collaborations.

Tuolumne Meadows Virtual Hike. UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences


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