UC Berkeley Science Shop: Connecting Community to University for Research


By Sybil Lewis

From left: Zack Fischmann, former Science Shop associate director; Karen Andrade, Science Shop executive director and founder; Michelle Endo, former Science Shop campus and community relations director; and Connie Kim, Science Shop website developer and graphic designer.
From left: Zack Fischmann, former Science Shop associate director; Karen Andrade, Science Shop executive director and founder; Michelle Endo, former Science Shop campus and community relations director; and Connie Kim, Science Shop website developer and graphic designer.

When Karen Andrade, a PhD student in the School of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, came to UC Berkeley in 2009, she was surprised to discover how challenging it was for outside organizations to partner with students and faculty on research projects.

Although local government agencies, like the San Francisco Department of the Environment, where she worked previously, had countless research topics in need of investigation, Andrade saw “there was no formal, institutionalized way for outside organizations to pose their research questions to the university.”

To address what she called this “discrepancy of power,” Andrade and other students applied for and won a BigIdeas@Berkeley award in Spring 2013 to start the UC Berkeley Science Shop, a publicly accessible entity within Cal that connects small nonprofits, local government agencies, small businesses, and other civic organizations with undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

Science Shop is housed in the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor in Environmental Science, Policy & Management, said that’s an ideal place because a commitment to community participatory research already exists. CNR is home to the Cooperative Extension program, where specialists from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Riverside conduct research and host public outreach activities to help transfer scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the public.

In its first two years, Science Shop has completed research projects with Nature Village, a sustainability group in UC Berkeley’s University Village residencies, and with Salmon Creek Watershed Council in Sonoma County. Science Shop has provided administrative, financial, and project management support to the researchers and free research to the community organizations.

Kareem Hammoud, an undergraduate in the School of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, contacted Andrade after she presented the Nature Village project to his senior thesis class. Nature Village wanted an assessment of the monetary value and sustainability of new shower valves to control and regulate water flow. Hammoud, who planned to write his thesis on the environmental impact of human behavior change, was eager to get involved—and expanded the assessment into a larger social impact project.

From March 2013 to May 2014, he worked with Science Shop and Nature Village to evaluate the effectiveness of education campaigns on sustainability and give feedback on the water saving potential of the valves. Hammoud recruited 100 households in University Village residencies; half received a low-flow valve and the other half did not. In addition to the valves, some households received workshops and handouts on drought, climate change, and water use.

At the end of the one-year project, Hammoud found that those who used the valves experienced savings of 4 percent, compared to households not using the valves—and that the sustainability education increased savings more than 10 percent. Impressed, University Village administrators did more analysis and determined that if they gave each household a shower valve, the residencies would save an estimated $22,500 to $67,600 per year. University Village is currently planning to install more low-flow valves throughout the residencies.

Andrade argues that experiences like Hammoud’s show that Science Shop can challenge students and enable them to interact directly with the people their research is affecting. But this process requires oversight. For that reason, Science Shop assigns graduate student mentors to undergraduate researchers to provide guidance and ensure quality results.

“It is hard to do research for the first time, if you have never done it before,” Andrade said. “Science Shop provides students with as much support as we can, while also giving students ownership over the project and allowing for an empowering research experience.”

Likewise, Science Shop team members have benefitted from guidance and support from the Blum Center for Developing Economies through drop-in advising hours and workshops. Lina Nilsson, innovation director at the Blum Center and Andrade’s mentor, was especially helpful in launching Science Shop by offering expertise in designing and implementing university innovation projects.

Science Shop team members pose with their first place award certificate from BigIdeas@Berkeley. The team won $7,500 in the 2012-2013 Improving Student Life category.
Science Shop team members pose with their first place award certificate from BigIdeas@Berkeley. The team won $7,500 in the 2012-2013 Improving Student Life category.

In January 2014, the Salmon Creek Watershed Council connected with Science Shop to understand and map out the relationship between the decline and ultimate disappearance of salmon and the residential development along the Sonoma County creek. Daisy Gonzalez, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Integrative Biology, was doing research for Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, a PhD student in the Energy & Resources Group, who had worked with the Council for his dissertation and connected Gonzalez to Science Shop and the Sonoma nonprofit.

The Council wanted to understand how water use had changed since the 1800s. Gonzalez spent a six months locating maps of Salmon Creek from the Bancroft Library Archives to generate an analysis of how land use affected water usage. Gonzalez noted that the biggest challenge was transforming the Council’s initial concern into a viable research question.

“I had done research on water before,” said Gonzalez, “but the most difficult aspect of this project was getting out of my comfort zone to find and ask for the resources that I needed.”

Noel Bouck, secretary of the Council, said her organization has displayed Gonzalez’s water usage maps at a local farmer’s market, allowing residents to follow their property as far back to the 1800s. “Working with Daisy has been wonderful, and people can’t resist the maps,” said Bouck, who noted the maps have drawn dozens of people to engage with the Council about the correlations among water usage, land development, and salmon depletion.

Another outcome of the project, said Bouck, is that her organization is connected with new researchers and resources. “One of the most beneficial parts of Science Shop was that it got us access to the UC and all their resources,” she said. “We would never have found the maps or had access to them on our own.”

In addition to aiding local organizations and providing hands-on research experiences to students, Science Shop hopes to increase student retention in the science fields. “People know science is beneficial, but when you are doing it and you write all those papers, you wonder if it will ever reach someone and go out to the world,” Andrade said.

For Gonzalez, who now works for an environmental justice nonprofit in her hometown of Salinas Valley, California, the project with the Council reaffirmed her desire to “serve as a resource to a community.”

Science Shop also operates on the idea that community expertise must be tapped and harnessed. The Watershed Council is case in point; community members there had longtime knowledge of water usage and the creek’s salmon population, and some were former research professors themselves. Since the project with Science Shop began, council members have provided the university with water samples from different aquifers, information which might have future use.

Science Shop is currently working on another project with University Village and Andrade has received over 20 research queries—more than enough to keep the rotating voluntary staff of 10 busy. The main challenge now is to secure more funding and staff to implement more projects. Science Shop recently applied for a two-year, $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to allow the organization become institutionalized in the university, eventually expanding beyond the environmental sciences to other disciplines

“Science Shop is extremely beneficial for people in my field and for scientists in general,” said Morello-Frosch, who guided the organization in applying for the NSF grant. “It’s important to collaborate with communities on scientific projects that require community involvement to both collect data and solve problems.”

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