MERCED, Calif. -- Many college students take a break from academics during the summer to spend time in the great outdoors. The University of California, Merced has programs that offer students a chance to commune with Mother Nature while working, living and learning in Yosemite National Park.
One of those programs is the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU), which started its second year this week. Eight students will participate in UC Merced's REU program, called Yosemite Research Training in Environmental Sciences.
The students will be in the park through mid-August, according to program director Benoit Dayrat, an assistant professor in UC Merced's School of Natural Sciences. Each student will work on an assigned research project and be paired with a faculty mentor. In addition to conducting field research inside Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevada, the students will participate in classes and go on field trips to build their background knowledge.
Dayrat said the program -- a collaborative effort between UC Merced, Yosemite National Park and the USGS Western Ecological Research Center -- offers students the best of both worlds as they get to spend a summer in one of the world's most famous outdoor destinations while working one-on-one with experienced scientists while conducting field research.
"It is important to give research opportunities to students," Dayrat said. Participating in research as an undergraduate can give students a glimpse of what a career in science would entail and can enhance their chances when applying for jobs and/or graduate school.
The students participating in the 2009 REU program includes a mix of students from UC Merced and other colleges and universities in the San Joaquin Valley and across the United States. The selection process is competitive. Dayrat received 150 completed applications for this year's program.
Selectees were chosen based on their academic standing, research-related experience, career goals and recommendations from mentors. The students will earn a weekly stipend for their field research with housing and food provided.
Dayrat said this year's program consists of seven diverse projects that span across all of environmental sciences. They include:
* Tracking and predicting the path of smoke plumes from wildfires and prescribed burns that originate within Yosemite National Park.
* Collecting freshwater organisms from high-elevation (above 9,000 to 10,000 feet) creeks to document species diversity and invertebrate communities.
* Gathering leaf samples from sequoias to determine the genetic structure of the trees in the area.
* Investigating heat and geochemical dynamics of stream pools on the Merced River's South Fork.
The mentors include UC Merced faculty as well as scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
The research will be beneficial and could lead to future discoveries. Moreover, the program "has become fantastic opportunity to establish long-term collaborations between UC Merced and neighboring agencies, especially the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey," Dayrat said.
During the program, participants will have two to three opportunities to share their experiences with other students and the public.
In mid-July, the program will host a group of students from Merced High School District, who will shadow the participants for a day.
"We will bring them to the park and show them what they can do as future college students," Dayrat said.
In mid-August, toward the program's end, the REU students will give presentations on the work they participated in and completed during the summer. The presentations are expected to take place on Aug. 14 and 15. The Aug. 14 presentation is open to the general public; the Aug. 15 presentation is geared toward community members who reside in and around Wawona Village in Yosemite.
Donna Birch Trahan 
UC Merced Office of Communications