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A discovery experience for each undergrad? New initiative sets the goal

The Berkeley Discovery Initiative is launching with ambitious plans for all students to embark at Berkeley on a personalized discovery project

Students with telescopes gather at night on Memorial Glade to look at the heavens at a star party. The Campanile is lit up in the background.

Star parties, like this one on Memorial Glade, are organized by the Undergraduate Astronomy Society and attract about 100 students each time. Participants in this photo got the chance to look through the new Unistellar eVscope 2 — a state-of-the-art telescope purchased with grant money from the Berkeley Discovery Initiative — to discover celestial wonders and perhaps to consider studying astronomy or physics. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

“Truly lost.” That’s how Ivan Chavez says he felt when he arrived at UC Berkeley in fall 2018. The first-generation college student, who’d spent most of his life in Tijuana, Mexico, couldn’t find people he identified with, or a campus path to help him discover his academic passion — one involving history, politics, research and public service.

“I was unsure about my place in this school,” said the history major, now in his third year at Berkeley, “or what I could accomplish.”

Chavez tried political science classes; they weren’t the right fit. Then, aware of Chavez’s longtime interest in erased history — history kept from public knowledge due to prejudice — a friend and Berkeley alumnus suggested he apply to SURF, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship for College of Letters and Science undergraduates.

Chavez was chosen, got a $5,000 stipend, a professor to supervise him, and embarked the summer before his sophomore year on researching the complex, untold histories of Golden Gate Park’s statues as part of his senior honors thesis. His work continues.

The SURF experience “changed my life,” said Chavez, “because it made me see the real perks of college,” including learning to properly document research and to navigate archives and data, to manage one’s time, to work closely with professors and to prepare presentations.

Ivan Chavez, a Berkeley third-year student major in history, stands outside Evans Hall smiling and wearing a Cal jacket and a backpack.

Ivan Chavez, a first-generation college student, felt lost when he arrived at Berkeley in 2018. He knew he wanted to do research and to study history and politics, but didn’t know where to start, who to talk to. The new Berkeley Discovery Initiative is designed to get each new student immersed in a project that will give them a sense of community, confidence and educational purpose. (UC Berkeley photo by Sofia Liashcheva)

Not all undergraduates at Berkeley are so lucky. Many never find and develop an immersive project that’s intellectually captivating, brings a sense of educational purpose, generates feelings of community and belonging, and grows one’s confidence as a change-maker.

But a new campus-wide plan — the Berkeley Discovery Initiative — is beginning to transform that, for all Berkeley undergraduates. Being launched in phases, it aims to quickly draw students eager for a discovery experience into a rich ecosystem of campus resources and support.

“Discovery has been at the heart of UC Berkeley forever, and we have been in discussion for years about how to offer dynamic discovery experiences to all undergraduates. But now we have entered an exciting new phase,” said Erica Bree Rosenblum, professor of global change biology and the initiative’s faculty director. “We have launched a campus-wide initiative, with seed funding, staffing and creative vision for a future where every student will have a personalized and empowered discovery journey.”

The initiative, which grew from a series of campus conversations hosted by current Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Cathy Koshland and former EVCP Paul Alivisatos is a part of the Berkeley Strategic Plan that envisions discovery as “the foundation of the Berkeley experience and the heart of our campus identity.”

Professor Erica Rosenblum, faculty director of the Berkeley Discovery Initiative, smiles and looks into the distance in a campus science lab.

Professor Erica Rosenblum, faculty director of the Berkeley Discovery Initiative, says, “Discovery is at the heart of what Berkeley’s been forever. … Now, it’s an initiative.” (UC Berkeley photo by Elena Zhukova)

A major goal is to remove barriers for students who “tell us how lost they felt, and how unwelcome they felt, until they lucked upon a person who made a difference,” said Rosenblum. “The barriers can be particularly intense for underrepresented students, first-generation college students and transfer students, who don’t always have the free extra-curricular time and the financial means to invest deeply in discovery work.”

The Berkeley Discovery Initiative addresses these barriers holistically to create opportunities and access for all students, both inside and beyond the classroom. The Student Discovery Hub is becoming a new central campus resource, both in-person and online, that helps undergraduates plan discovery projects, plug into co-curricular programs and find mentors and collaborators.

One of the hub’s main activities this year is an advising project. Special advisers from departments, colleges, the Division of Equity and Inclusion, Student Affairs and other units are working to develop new best practices for inspiring and guiding students on their discovery journeys.

And the first Berkeley Discovery Departmental Innovation Grant Program awards have been given to six “trailblazing teams,” as Rosenblum calls them, that proposed multi-year plans to weave more engaged, inquiry-driven learning into the undergraduate experience. The winning teams are in astronomy, combined with physics; integrative biology; chemistry; electrical engineering and computer science; reading and composition, along with foreign language; and the combined schools of education, social welfare and public health.

Sean Burns, director of the new UC Berkeley Student Discovery Hun, looks at the camera in a wooded part of campus.

“It’s an ambitious initiative,” says Sean Burns, director of the Student Discovery Hub. “But I feel it is going to showcase the best of Berkeley, what really differentiates us … ” (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

The vast majority of a $5 million gift from Peter and Megan Chernin to support the initiative is being provided as multi-year support for these teams. “The idea is to deeply invest in projects that could really make an impact ‘at scale’ and with teams ready to commit to a multi-year, deep redesign process,” said Rosenblum.

Today, a personalized discovery project is encouraged for all undergraduates. Discovery-oriented programming is introduced to students at Golden Bear Orientation, and Cal Day 2022 will have discovery as its theme.

“It’s an ambitious initiative,” admitted Sean Burns, director of the Student Discovery Hub. “But I feel it is going to showcase the best of Berkeley, what really differentiates us from Stanford or San Francisco State, the scale of opportunities to really engage students in what we’re at the cutting edge of, not just our research enterprise, but the many facets of our institutional prowess.”

For years, Burns said he’s listened to students discuss how becoming passionate about a project while at Berkeley “became, essentially, their educational purpose. And their hands-on projects took many shapes — community engagement, entrepreneurship, the arts, research.”

By infusing discovery into Berkeley’s vast landscape through “embedding active learning and high-impact practices in the undergraduate experience, students will be more likely to pursue what they love and do so in a committed way, said Burns, “… whether it’s writing a play or creating a startup or doing historical research or working on housing issues in Oakland.”

Professor Eugene Chiang, wearing a gold bandana over his mouth during the COVID-19 pandemic, talks with masked students in a small group, all of them standing up, in his Order of Magnitude Physics course.

Eugene Chiang (wearing bandana), professor of astronomy and of earth and planetary science, helped the departments of astronomy and physics receive one of six Berkeley Discovery Departmental Innovation Grant Program awards for a proposal to weave more engaged, inquiry-driven learning into the undergraduate experience. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

Physics and astronomy: Re-imagined labs, star parties, student ‘families’

One of the six departmental innovation grants went to a faculty team headed by Eugene Chiang, professor of astronomy. During the pandemic, when students were forced to attend Berkeley remotely — and for many, it was a struggle — and as the Black Lives Matter movement took off, Chiang said he couldn’t shake the realization that the group of undergraduates that forms the majority of astronomy and physics majors at Berkeley “is not terribly diverse.” For example, he added, “the number of Black Americans in a class of 50 students is typically either one or zero.

“And it’s not just the demographics that are a problem, it’s also how people are generally doing in the classes. How do we better reach and teach physics and math, to make it more real, more practical, so students feel empowered by the material that they’re learning, as opposed to giving them one more technical hoop to jump through?”

Chiang decided to become a faculty mentor for CalTeach, a campus program for STEM majors interested in becoming K-12 teachers that’s part of a national movement to address today’s educational challenges. He also successfully applied, on behalf of the astronomy and physics departments, for a Berkeley Discovery grant.

The result is Creative Collaborative Discovery in Physics and Astronomy, a program with the stated intent of equipping majors in these fields “to be full citizens of our universe, capable of solving real-world problems.” Included in the proposal is a newly-refurbished Student Machine Shop and Tinkering Studio, and reforms to the Radio and Optical Astrophysics Labs that will give students total control over equipment and tools, many of which they will create themselves.

Professor Eugene Chiang, who teaches astronomy and earth and planetary science, stands in a hallway at Berkeley, smiling at the camera and holding some paperwork.

Eugene Chiang’s new Physics 151: “Order-of-Magnitude Physics” course challenges students to grapple with real-world problems — like the power requirements of a helicopter on Mars, or the odds that they carry the genes for certain diseases — without the aid of the Internet. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

“We want to re-imagine the way labs work,” said Chiang. “We want students to come in and build tools from scratch, to give them a raspberry pi, a handheld chip, and start programming away. Rather than give them canned routines, where they go from station to station following a recipe, we can give them open-ended problems and the opportunity to be creative.”

A new student-driven and faculty-supported Physics and Astronomy Scholars Program, open especially to underrepresented students, provides peer advising and group mentoring, as well as dozens of paid student leadership positions, including peer tutors organized via Berkeley’s Student Learning Center (SLC), a partner in the Berkeley Discovery Initiative. Nearly 300 students have signed up to take part in the scholars program. Other paid student positions include student technicians and peer advisers and mentors.

The SLC is one of the few learning centers in the world with services facilitated almost entirely by undergraduates. Under the leadership of Cara Stanley, the SLC is the primary academic support unit for Berkeley, employing 18 professional staff, 300 trained undergraduate tutors and 20 graduate student instructors and serving about 10,000 undergraduates annually — about 40% of the undergraduate student population.

Chiang said that the Physics and Astronomy Scholars Program is “working on practically every front,” including “growing community” by structuring students into “families,” each given a small budget for social activities. “The goal is to get students connected to each other so they can advise one another,” he said.

Chiang’s new Physics 151: “Order-of-Magnitude Physics” course challenges students to grapple with real-world problems — like the power requirements of a helicopter on Mars, or the odds that they carry the genes for certain diseases — without the aid of the Internet. “Armed with a few physical first principles and the courage to put pencil to paper, anyone can leverage their life experience to compute a surprisingly wide variety of quantities,” he said. “We want students to get into the habit of deciding what is important and what can be ignored in any given situation by being quantitative.”

Professor Robert Full stands with some of the students who are part of his Bioinspired Design project

Integrative biology professor Robert Full, whose department also won a trailblazer award, said it’s important “to change the landscape of how students learn, to move it toward a more student-led, student-centered, community approach.” Here, he poses with students in his Bio-inspired Design discovery course. (Photo courtesy of Robert Full)

Integrative biology creates ‘early on-ramp’ to discovery, belonging

Robert Full, professor of integrative biology, whose department also won a trailblazer award, said it’s important “to change the landscape of how students learn, to move it toward a more student-led, student-centered, community approach, so that they’re put in a position where they can make discoveries broadly that are meaningful to them and the future they envision.”

Particularly in the sciences, he said, “we lose huge numbers of students because they don’t feel they belong to this community. There is a very strong imposter syndrome; all our students are amazing, they’re just not all at the same starting line. … There are many students who arrive at Berkeley in the know, who already have a strong sense of familiarity with academia, and financial support, and confidence to pursue discovery. But there are too many who don’t. An inclusive, diverse set of minds is vital to inventing the future.”

The Department of Integrative Biology has developed Discovery for All: Empowering Inclusive Communities in Integrative Biology, a program that is creating an “early on-ramp,” said Full, to draw students into the discovery process in this field through membership in “discovery communities” — introduction to discovery courses, Berkeley Connect freshman seminars, student-created registered organizations and student-taught De-Cal classes, where students have a voice in the direction of discovery and its societal impact.

Students look into a glass tank at a lungfish during an integrative biology class.

The air-breathing lungfish captivates students’ curiosity in a course with professor and evolutionary biologist Christopher Martin, who runs the Martin fish speciation lab. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

Full developed such an on-ramp experience in his Eyes Toward Tomorrow program. Teams of students read original biological research discoveries, learn from nature and create inventions that can lead to societal benefit. Full’s Bio-Inspired Design discovery course draws 180 students from more than 40 majors. He teaches it in the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, where there are laser cutters, electronics labs, 3D printers and other tools so students can build prototypes to test their designs. Students from this and other classes can join the student-led BioD: Berkeley Bio-Inspired Design@Berkeley community and even teach the BioDesign De-Cal class.

The integrative biology discovery program team led by Full and integrative biology co-chairs Eileen Lacey and Tyrone Hayes consists of three interconnected efforts — promoting curiosity, community and careers. Students will have the opportunity to create a discovery portfolio to share with potential employers or with professors they approach for letters of recommendation. This new e-portfolio can showcase the students’ competencies, discovery experiences, character traits, teamwork and even the psycho-social obstacles they’ve overcome.

“It’s telling the story of the discovery experiences they’ve had at Cal more effectively than a transcript,” said Full.

Sisters’ discovery leads to Afghan Clinic

Nilufar Kayhani, a senior and public health major raised in the Bay Area Afghan refugee community, already has an impressive story to share. She’s discovered the tools she needs at Berkeley, and the support, to run Afghan Clinic, a health intervention program for Afghan refugee women, with her sister, Nazineen Kandahari, a Berkeley alumna who now is a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program.

The virtual clinic, which offered its first webinar in March 2021, is rooted in the sofreh, a traditional, religious gathering of Afghan women who come together to pray, to eat, and to support each other. The sisters’ version offers health and health care access information.

Two Afghan sisters — Nazineen Kandahari, a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, and the other, Nilufar Kayhani, a senior at Berkeley who is majoring in public health, stand close to each other and smile. Nazineen is wearing a white lab coat. They have created an online clinic for Afghan refugee women.

Sisters Nazineen Kandahari (left), a Berkeley alumna who now is student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, and Nilufar Kayhani, a Berkeley senior majoring in public health, have created Afghan Clinic, to help improve the health of Bay Area women who are Afghan refugees. (Photo by Mohammad Karimzada)

“The Bay Area has a lot of Afghans, and I’ve always been an interpreter for my parents, helped them make medical decisions, went to appointments with them, and have noticed that the health care system is not made for people who may not speak English, but for people with education and privilege,” said Kayhani.

At Las Positas College, the community college in Livermore that Kayhani attended before transferring to Berkeley in fall 2020, “I had the interest (in setting up a clinic), but no opportunities to give it a shot,” she said. “But then I arrived at a school with such opportunity.”

Kayhani sampled Berkeley’s public health, biostatistics and social sciences courses. She took part in the Biology Scholars Program, which gave her funding from fall 2021 to summer 2022 to develop Afghan Clinic, and joined Cal Nerds. Both programs support low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students in STEM fields.

And with her sister, Kayhani studied the health care needs of Bay Area Afghan women. The siblings’ team now includes 10 other college students in health care fields who are Afghan refugees or the children of refugees.

“I don’t anticipate letting this go; my sister and I are equally passionate about it,” said Kayhani about Afghan Clinic, which is growing in popularity. “My advice to students is to apply to and take advantage of opportunities, of anything exciting to you, at Berkeley. Get involved in programs early.”

For those who need some help thinking about the possibilities, “news that the Berkeley Discovery Initiative is there,” she said, “is amazing.”