UCI Faculty and students

From left to right: Faculty Mentor Quoc-Viet Dang, Jason Lim, Sidney Lau, Kathy Nguyen, and Owen Yang. Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), learning takes many different forms. While there are the traditional lectures and discussions commonly associated with a college education, UCI also offers a variety of other opportunities to help students immerse themselves in the educational experience.

For graduating computer science and engineering student Owen Yang, some of his most valued learning experiences took place outside of the classroom. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced UCI to transition to a remote environment, you could often find Owen caring for plants at UCI’s student-run garden or in the lab working on his research project titled ”ZotPonics: A Smart Automated Hydroponics System for Sustainable Agriculture.”

Funded by UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Owen’s research allows him to take a more active approach to learning.

I think it’s a really great way to get started on more hands-on projects that you wouldn’t experience in classes alone,” he says. “UROP gives you a great way to pursue a project that you are interested in and get the experience and help you need.”

Owen points out that the relationship he developed with his faculty mentor, Professor Quoc-Viet Dang, also helped him advance his learning in ways he wasn’t able to before. With direct access to his professor, Owen could seek personalized  assistance and guidance whenever necessary: “Our advisor is the one that helped us with any questions that we had that were outside of our knowledge.” 

As a unit in the Division of Undergraduate Education, one of UROP’s central goals is to introduce UCI’s student population to the educational possibilities associated with the research process. By helping students across schools and academic units connect with faculty, develop research proposals, create research plans, apply for grants, and present and publish their findings, UROP is dedicated to helping students develop the critical skills they need for academic and future success.

Speaking on the value of research, UROP’s Director Said Shokair expresses his belief that research opens students up to a whole new world of personal development. “Faculty-mentored research and creative projects have become integral to the experience an undergraduate expects at UCI,” he contends. “In addition to promoting critical thinking, the research process also helps students build their communication, project management, and a host of other important skills. These skills don’t just matter in academia; they can be applied to virtually every position in any field or industry.”

With his project, Owen is looking for ways to implement smart and automated hydroponics to support sustainable farming techniques. He explains:

“Hydroponics is a way to grow plants using only nutrient-rich water, and it is usually set up indoors so plants have their own climate to grow in. We created that system in a box and had different sensors and actuators to regulate the climate. Climate control factors include humidity, temperature, light, and how often we want to water it.”

Owen’s research has the potential to make significant environmental and societal impacts as it provides more sustainable ways to grow food. With agricultural spaces being lost and outdoor growing conditions often threatened by unpredictable changes in weather and other environmental factors, Owen’s research can help humans find lasting solutions for food cultivation that minimize environmental costs.

For Owen, his work with UROP checks all the boxes. Not only does it allow him to combine his interest in gardening and technology, but it also has the potential to serve the community and help others. Now that Owen has graduated, he is looking forward to finding opportunities to put his experience at UCI to good use. 

“After I graduate, I’ll be working at Microsoft,” he says. “In the future, I want to grow my skills as a computer science engineer and use my skills to work on technology projects that impact the lives of others for the better.”

If you are a UCI student that is interested in learning more about UROP and how the program can help you explore the world of academic research, then visit UROP’s website here or reach out to the UROP team at urop@uci.edu.