Undergraduate Engineering Students Lead Research Expedition to Arctic Tundra
This past summer, six undergraduate civil engineering students had the extraordinary opportunity to organize and manage their own research trip to the Arctic as part of UMass Amherst’s Integrating Geoscience & Engineering in the Arctic (IGEA) program.
The IGEA program, funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and overseen by Arctic hydrologist and professor Colin Gleason of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, is a one-year course that runs from the spring semester through the following fall.
In the first phase of the class, students choose an Arctic research topic related to beaded streams, a unique stream system that forms only in permafrost. The students are then completely responsible for organizing, planning, and implementing their entire expedition, including designing a research plan, planning safety and medical logistics, and taking a 10-day wilderness medicine training through the National Outdoor Leadership School. When they return from the field in the fall, they spend the semester synthesizing their data, culminating in a final report and presentation.
"They start day one. They do the budgets, they book the flights, calculate the user days, do the logistics and all the paperwork for the NSF,” says Gleason. “This is a chance for them to do full-circle science, and what I want them to connect is how did those choices they made way back at the beginning of the first semester impact their research out in the field."
While in Alaska, this year’s IGEA students took nearly 5000 survey points across 400 cross-sections of 11 different streams, one of the most comprehensive surveys on beaded streams ever completed in the scientific literature. The students recently shared their research findings during their well-attended end-of semester poster and panel presentation. But for the students, the process was as important to them as the product.
Civil Engineering major Brady Bell says the class exceeded any other academic experience they have had. "I've noticed a major shift in my thinking skills,” Bell says. “I now think more critically, and I understand things at a deeper level. And on a practical note, employers are very interested to know that an undergrad has a year's worth of research experience."
"If you're interested in research, there's no better opportunity than actually going to Alaska and planning everything yourself," says student Liam Amery, who is considering entering the research field after graduation. "You learn what it takes to be a professional researcher, and you grow close to the group of people you're working with. This was easily my favorite class I've taken as an undergraduate."
The IGEA program is fully funded through a National Science Foundation grant and the support of UMass Amherst alumni. For Gleason, the removal of financial barriers to the program is vitally important. He wants any interested student, from any background and without any needed experience, to have a chance to experience this kind of research work as an undergraduate.
“These students can say they saw snow north of the Arctic Circle in August. And that they went out every day all day, like real scientists, working 12 to 14 hours a day for three weeks in the high Arctic to do something they had designed themselves,” Gleason says. "I hope this is the most powerful experience of their undergraduate education.”