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Summer programs teach hundreds about our planet

Stanford Earth hosted students, teachers, and international visitors through its diverse educational programs this summer.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
September 19, 2017
group of students with mountains in background
Local high school students learned about local geology from George Hilley at Sunol Regional Park in Alameda County, Calif. Photo credit: George Hilley

During summer 2017, more than 75 students and teachers participated across five programs at Stanford Earth to educate themselves about the science and sustainability of the planet they live on. As part of its mission “creating knowledge to understand Earth and sustain its inhabitants,” Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences offers an array of opportunities each summer for teachers, high school students, and undergraduates from a variety of institutions to study everything from groundwater levels to sustainable rice farming.

This year’s programs included:

Stanford Earth Young Investigators

During an eight-week program, 33 local high school students conducted research in 12 groups led by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Projects involved predicting future rice production, finding correlations between electricity costs and groundwater depletion, using iconic species in climate change education, understanding saltwater intrusions, and studying Antarctic phytoplankton. One group of 19 students measured the body size of over 22,000 specimens of butterflies and moths in a project that aims to understand biodiversity and extinction patterns of these insects, which have little evidence in the fossil record.

Geoscape Bay Area for Earth Sciences Teachers

teachers learning at foggy California beach

K-12 science teachers spent one week discovering new ways to teach their students about our planet and its geological landscape, resources, and natural hazards. The program, a collaboration with the Stanford Teaching Festival through the Stanford Graduate School of Education, guided educators through California’s geological history and included a field trip to the coast.

One attendee, Daniel Meyer, a 9th and 10th grade teacher in Mountain View, Calif., learned new ways of approaching teaching so that students can investigate the topics themselves. He also valued the time spent learning from Stanford Earth’s researchers.

“Talking about their research helped to really give insight into why the science we teach is so complicated,” Meyer said.

Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SESUR)

This summer, 22 Stanford undergraduate students conducted research, many for the first time, under the guidance of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty. Students worked in Peru, Colorado, and Palau, as well as on campus in the Stanford Earth departments of Geophysics, Energy Resources Engineering, Earth Systems, and Geological Sciences.

Becca Nelson, ’20, a biology major, joined the program to learn more about the research process and pursue her interest in ecology. Her project involved investigating human decision-making and observing state park visitors to understand how redwood trees may be used to educate people about climate change.

“People come from all around the world every year to see the redwoods, so they can provide a great opportunity for climate education because the fog patterns that the redwoods rely on are shifting due to global warming,” she said.

Because it takes place during the summer, SESUR offers undergraduates the opportunity to fully dive into a research project without the time constraints of a full course load. Rising sophomore Jabari Hastings worked with professor Jenny Suckale’s SIGMA research group, which studies volcanoes, glaciers, and other geophysics systems.

“I think before this, I might have romanticized research – you don’t know exactly what research entails and, for example, how much reading you have to do until you do it.”

Using computer modeling that simulates different processes in volcanoes, he adjusted the parameters to incorporate data about the properties of Mount Erebus in Antarctica in order to better understand its eruption patterns. The experience is helping him determine what aspects of math and science make him the most excited.

“I decided to do something outside of my comfort zone, and now I can say I’ve done research at Stanford, which is amazing. It makes me smile so much.”

Stanford Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE)

Students conduct lab work.

SURGE is an eight-week program that provides undergraduates from U.S. colleges and universities the opportunity to gain mentored research experience from Stanford faculty in the geosciences and engineering. This summer, the program hosted 13 students from institutions across the country, including the University of Texas at Austin, Bowdoin College, San Diego State University, and Cornell University. Students researched a variety of topics, including the rooting systems in the southern Sierra Nevada, the impact of climate change in arsenic uptake and rice paddies, and soil carbon cycling.

Graduate student Shersingh Tumber, who participated in the program in 2014, said that growing up in Puerto Rico, exploring the rainforest, and getting lost on his family’s 30-acre farm instilled in him a love of the environment. While at the University of New Hampshire, Tumber knew grad school was in his future, but it wasn’t until he participated in SURGE that he could envision himself at a place like Stanford.

He fondly remembers the passion and mentorship given to him when he participated in SURGE. Now as a Stanford PhD student in the Jackson Lab, Tumber is paying it forward as a SURGE mentor to Cornell University junior Alexis Wilson. Through Tumber’s guidance, Wilson is looking at root biomass at a 2D-depth scale and seeing how it is affected by changes in soil characters. Wilson said she has loved working in the field and figuring out new ways to be more efficient.

Geological Sciences Summer Field Camp

Seven undergraduate students spent four weeks in central Nevada and the Eastern Sierra with professors Elizabeth Miller and Erik Sperling in Research in the Field (GS 190). They applied stratigraphy, paleobiology, structural geology, and geologic mapping to answer questions about basin evolution and extension history in the Basin and Range Province.

Interesting discoveries included an estimate of greater than 2.6 times extension, or stretching, of the Grant Range and that the geometry of faults is similar to Yerington, Nev. The students also applied their understandings about basic geological processes like pluton emplacement – how magma is accommodated in a host rock – and glacial retreat in the Sierra Nevada, and produced insightful maps and cross-sections of the area.

“Beyond carrying out research in the field, it’s an overall great camping experience,” Miller said.

Student drawing map next to image of map.
Students drew geological maps of the Basin and Range Province during the Research in the Field undergraduate course. Photo credit: Elizabeth Miller