Our program’s capstone experience is a team-based project focused on a community-engaged collaboration extending across the program’s second year

During their second year, students are required to complete 12 units of a group capstone project. Groups of students (3-6) will complete a project involving a local partner/stakeholder and organized by CEB to address a current environmental problem, giving the students an opportunity to work directly with practitioners to design, develop, conduct, and implement a project. Group projects must be:

  1. Solution oriented – Projects should yield specific policy or management recommendations, contain multidisciplinary elements, and align with student and partner interests.
  2. Framed by Active Adaptive Management – Group project will be nested within an active adaptive management framework and will include a review of literature and analysis of data.

Capstone projects will produce a written document and be presented to the broader community of conservation and restoration science professionals in southern California at an annual workshop in the Spring.

Quick Links

UCI MCRS 2021-22 Capstone Projects (subject to change each academic year) :

Click each project for detailed descriptions:

Avian Monitoring at the Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve

In the last 50 years, there has been a large decline in the abundance of North American birds. In the Mojave Desert, changes in climate have been linked to a loss in bird diversity and abundance. The Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve, one of the UCI-managed reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System, is the site of a long-term bird banding effort. Since 1989, researchers have conducted bird banding roughly twice per year (in the fall and spring seasons). Birds are collected, identified to species, weighed and measured. When possible, information about sex and age is also recorded. This long-term data set can be used to answer a number of important questions related to bird migration, abundance, and diversity. The MCRS team will have the opportunity to participate in the fall and spring bird banding efforts. In addition, the team will analyze the existing long-term bird dataset along with weather data to address the following types of questions: (1) What is the relationship between weather and bird abundance and diversity? (2) How has the avian community changed through time and with season? (3) What is the frequency of re-collecting birds and what does this tell us about bird migration and lifespan? Possible goals include the identification of species in decline for conservation prioritization and increasing knowledge of avian community structure in response to changing climatic conditions. For abundant species, information on morphology and demographics may be used to conduct additional analyses of population dynamics. Partners include Walt Sakai and his bird banding team, Jan Goerrissen from OCC, and UCI-NATURE.

Post-fire Evaluation of the Resilience of Experimental Communities

Wildfires have been increasing in frequency and severity due to human ignition and climate change. Two experimental and restoration sites in the Santa Ana mountains burned in the October 2020 Silverado Canyon Fire. Both of these sites offer opportunities to investigate how landscape manipulations influence post-fire recovery of vegetation. The Loma Ridge Global Change experiment was established in 2007 and consists of plots of coastal sage scrub and grassland communities in which nitrogen and water is experimentally manipulated. These plots were burned in the Silverado Canyon fire, which revealed some interesting questions related to interactions amongst water and nutrient manipulations and wildfire. This dataset provides an important opportunity to understand the relationship between pre-fire conditions, burn intensity, and post-fire recovery. The Bee Flat Restoration project consists of areas previously dominated by non-native, invasive species that were restored to either native grassland or coastal sage scrub. An effort was made to include a diversity of native wildflowers in the seed mixes used in restoration. This area also burned in the 2020 Silverado Fire, providing a unique opportunity to evaluate the resilience of restored plant communities. The MCRS capstone team could measure species composition in unrestored degraded areas, unrestored intact native areas, and in areas restored to coastal sage scrub and grassland. One important question would be whether the restoration sites have the diversity of native wildflowers post-fire as is frequently found in intact burned areas. Another question is whether shrubs that were planted as part of a restoration project are able to re-sprout and recover at the same rate as shrubs occurring in intact native shrublands. Partners include the Irvine Ranch Conservancy and the Natural Communities Coalition, along with a number of different UCI research labs.

Evaluation of Stream and Estuary Restoration Performance

Community Partner: Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) Science Advisor: Eric Stein (SCCWRP) 2 Following Southern California’s intensive urbanization and flood control activities in the 20th century, estuarine and stream habitats have severely declined, experiencing a reduction of habitat quality, biodiversity, and overall ecosystem function. Habitat restoration has become a widespread management tool to mitigate this trend; however, there is a lack of understanding about the efficacy of this management action at improving ecological condition. Restoration can differ widely in scope and methodology and may fulfill permit or grant requirements, yet it may not provide a healthy habitat and functioning ecosystem. Challenges in answering these questions include ability to characterize different restoration approaches, accessibility of consistent data sets, and clear benchmarks for defining performance. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) aims to collaborate with MCRS students and tackle this issue by compiling existing data on past and on-going estuarine and stream restoration projects, conducting field and spatial observations to inventory restoration activity in the region, and evaluating ecological monitoring data available in public databases such as the California Environmental Data Exchange Network (CEDEN) and EcoAtlas. Based on this inventory, we will: a) catalogue and classify restoration projects b) propose definitions/benchmarks for restoration success c) analyze available data to determine restoration performance, d) identify data gaps where additional sampling could provide insights into restoration effectiveness e) develop recommendation for future monitoring and assessment. Data gaps will be presented to regional monitoring programs, such as the Stormwater Monitoring Coalition (SMC) or the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project (SCWRP). Student activities will include data compilation, synthesis and analysis. Where practical, students will collect assessment data (focusing on the California Rapid Assessment Method [CRAM]) at sites prioritized in the data gap analysis. This investigation will create a baseline for measuring restoration success across different projects, guide future data collection, and infer best practices in future ecological restoration and management. This project will provide students with experience in data collection and analysis, habitat assessment, exposure to agency restoration programs, geospatial analysis, and report writing, as well as industry connections and ongoing collaborations.

HAB Monitoring and Effects on Newport Bay nearshore and estuarine habitat

Community Partner: Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) Science Advisor: Martha Sutula (SCCWRP) Harmful algal blooms are problematic to observe and relate to environmental drivers because they are exceptionally episodic, requiring high frequency monitoring. This proposed capstone project would employ a team of UCI Conservation and Restoration Science Program (CRSP) master students to assist in research investigating the effects of HABs on the Newport Bay estuary and coast. SCCWRP is part of a team of NOAA Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) HAB research institutions along the coast that regularly conduct weekly observation of piers (including Newport pier), with a coordinated and standardized protocol of data collection, including phytoplankton assemblage, toxin concentrations and nutrients. Newport Coast is an important observing location, because it is heavily influenced by anthropogenic nutrient sources from the Orange County Sanitation District’s ocean outfall and from point and nonpoint sources of nutrients discharged from the San Diego Creek watershed. Recently, three new initiatives have the potential to leverage this basic weekly dataset: 3 1) NOAA ECOHAB project that is investigating the environmental drivers that trigger HAB toxin gene expression. This project will commence weekly sampling at the Newport Pier, and SCCWRP may be adding to the typical suite of analyses some constituents that are related to toxin gene expression. 2) OPC project to put a flow cytobot on the Pier, in which we will be collecting real time data on phytoplankton composition. 3) SCCWRP internally funded project to develop a couple physical biogeochemical numerical model of Newport Bay that can simulate the effects of algal blooms on seagrass habitat in the Lower Bay. SCCWRP may be purchasing light sensors that could be deployed (by UCI students) to document light limitation that is inhibiting the seagrass habitat in the lower Bay. We propose to use UCI in a combination of weekly field work, laboratory analyses and data analyses on a combination of the above three projects. Students would also attend Southern California Bight stakeholder advisory group meetings to understand how SCCWRP interact with local water quality management agencies to translate science to management.

Assessment and monitoring shore ecology and kelp forest health through beach wrack

Community Partner: Crystal Cove State Park, Crystal Cove Conservancy Science Advisor: Riley Pratt (CCSP), Holly Fletcher (CCC) Beach wrack (kelp and other macrophyte debris that deposited on shores) may be considered by the public to be smelly and unsightly; however, it is a key source of nutrients for beach communities and its presence increases diversity and abundance of invertebrates and shorebirds, including threatened species. Multiple factors are changing the abundance and composition of wrack on southern California beaches including grooming (human removal of wrack for recreation or aesthetics), declining kelp forests (due to heat waves, pollution, overfishing and disease in keystone species, and other factors), and introduced species (including non-native kelps). Wrack is an underappreciated ecological resource worth studying for its importance to beach health, but may also be a useful indicator for community shifts and processes happening offshore. Crystal Cove State Park seeks to establish baseline data and a monitoring program to track shifts in this important resource and inform decisions about management and restoration. Crystal Cove Conservancy has developed an educational module that has not yet been implemented for 9-12th graders to conduct beach wrack monitoring; this capstone project will adapt existing curricula and community science programs to generate useful long-term data. A second requested deliverable is science communication: to popularize this program, the capstone team will promote wrack to students, teachers, and the community through the creation of videos and media, and promotion at events such as Laguna Beach Kelp Fest. Project components, depending on interest of student participants, may include: a) Field work: collection of baseline data on wrack ecology, macroinvertebrate diversity and abundance, design and implementation of a monitoring program assessing biomass, distribution, seasonality, and composition of wrack, and (possibly) snorkel or boat transect surveys for kelp forest monitoring. b) Shorebird extension: in addition to analyzing collected data, students have access to long-term datasets (and may participate in data collection) on shorebird surveys and nest monitoring at state beaches throughout California to assess differences between groomed and ungroomed beaches. c) GIS/data analysis comparison of groomed/ungroomed sites: Assessment of temporal and spatial changes in kelp forest extent using aerial imagery; potential collaboration with Prof. Brett Sanders (UCI, Engineering) to use drone footage taken during shoreline erosion surveys to assess wrack. 4 d) Science Communication/Networking: One of the requested deliverables of this project is promotional materials to encourage classes to engage in beach monitoring field trips. In addition, students will share findings and network with researchers and managers in the field of beach ecology and the annual Beach Ecology Coalition meeting in January 2022.