Improving the undergraduate experience, one "Discovery" at a time

December 6, 2022

Gazing at stars during nighttime parties, dinners with “family,” getting creative in a machine shop, and long philosophical discussions with peers might not seem like the expected stuff of an undergraduate education in science, but it is all part of a new plan for student-led discovery unfolding in the UC Berkeley Physics and Astronomy (PA) Departments, in the Division of Mathematical & Physical Sciences.

Faculty members in both departments—along with their enthusiastic students—are reaching beyond just the pursuit of scientific knowledge—as central as that is—to foster, in a deliberate way, a concept and practice of discovery that is more expansive, open-ended, creative and collaborative.

Creative Collaborative Discovery in Physics and Astronomy

This approach to undergraduate education, say two PA faculty members, Austin Hedeman and Eugene Chiang, is meant to continually engage and connect students throughout their time at Berkeley in both academic and social activities that revolve around their physics and astronomy education. For PA students it means a rich tapestry of experiences including lively discussions of science ethics, opportunities to conceptualize and build experimental devices, work out ‘back of the envelope’ solutions to problems, tutor their peers, operate telescopes at “star parties,” and more. It is part of a broader, campus-wide effort known as the Berkeley Discovery Initiative in which students are “invited into an immersive and inquiry-driven learning that culminates with a personalized discovery project, whether original research, artistic production, entrepreneurial initiative, or community-engaged service.” The aim is to instill a lifelong ethos of engaging with grand challenges, fostering creativity and journeying toward innovation.

Hedeman's and Chiang’s particular vision for the PA departments won a five-year Departmental Innovation Award to support the changes underway. Their plan includes a “Discovery Arc” of experience, tools, curriculum, and mentoring that begins the moment students first arrive on campus. Hedeman and Chiang say they felt a specific urgency to use the Discovery Arc concept to address what seemed like a troubling disconnect between PA undergraduates and how their education relates to the wider world. They heard it in tough questions posed by PA majors, for example: “I majored in physics to understand how the universe works. Why is this class just about math?” “I want to do research. But where do I start? There do not seem to be enough openings.” “None of my family or my friends studies science. Who can I look to for help?” They say the questions helped outline the main challenges for the PA departments, including how to build a Discovery Arc that would weave creative agency and curiosity-driven learning into the curriculum. Other challenges include how to mentor at scale hundreds of undergraduate students, and how to recruit and retain underrepresented students.

The Discovery Arc has three main parts: connect, immerse, and culminate. To foster connections, each undergraduate can opt into the PA Scholars Program and be assigned a “scholar family” that consists of six to eight undergraduates from diverse backgrounds as well as senior family members including faculty and staff, postdocs and graduate students. Connections and introductions begin the first day students arrive on campus, via a Golden Bears Orientation.

The Physics and Astronomy Scholars Program: Connecting undergraduates from all backgrounds

The PA Scholars Program is known as a near-peer mentoring system to connect undergraduates from all education and socioeconomic backgrounds, especially minorities who are severely underrepresented in the physical sciences. Any student in the department with a willingness to learn from and serve the PA communities can participate. For graduating senior Elena Vasquez, the PA Scholars Program has included her involvement with the Berkeley Society of Physics Students (SPS) as the club’s chair of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). “I helped create [scholar] families and paired upper and lower division students to help them navigate their way through the physics department,” Vazquez says of her SPS service. “In physics specifically, we talk about ways to make others feel included because sometimes it can feel like it's not all inclusive.” She says SPS has worked with the department to “create a community such that everyone from every background from any situation feels like they can be here and that they can do physics at Berkeley.” Vasquez says the SPS mentorship program helps many students. “We pair upper-division students with first and second-years or transfer students. There are usually two to three mentors in each group and four to six mentees. We pair them up based on academic interests, whether that be research or classes they are taking or fields of physics they are interested in.” She says mentors and mentees might pair off according to gender or pronoun preferences and that mentors receive help in learning how to be successful mentors and how to ensure that a community is being built. Twice monthly meetings are required, Vasquez says, though typically they meet more often. Asked about her personal experience with EDI, Vasquez says, “I came out of high school knowing that physics was something I wanted to pursue. And so, I took my first physics class, and I was not necessarily prepared for the rigor and the feeling of being a minority, being different than everyone else.” She says the turning point came when “I found a little community of women who were in the class with me, and we pushed through together.”

Group of students at a table with laptops, phones, and books, talking

A group of Discovery students meets on the terrace of Campbell Hall. Elena Vasquez (center) has had a pivotal role in helping to form scholar families for the program. (Photo by Keegan Houser)

An undergrad student in discussion with two faculty members

Physics undergrad Sarah Kwon has an informal meeting with Professor Eugene Chiang and Austin Hedeman, who are faculty leads in the Physics Astronomy Discovery program. (Photo by Keegan Houser)

Student wearing safety goggles studies parts in a Student Machine Shop

Physics undergrad Vivian Frisk working in the Student Machine Shop. (Photo by Keegan Houser)

Student points at something off camera in front of two other students, all gathered in a machine sho

Angela Cheng (center) shows fellow undergraduate students how to use the Kent KTM-4VKF-E Vertical Knee Mill, which is capable of both manual and CNC operations. (Photo by Keegan Houser)