Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Each year, the college sponsors a 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) to provide students the opportunity to experience undergraduate research projects on topics related to their programs or in which they have interest.



What is the first thing you see when you walk into a hotel lobby? Or a hospital emergency room? There is much work done behind the scenes when creating impactful experiences for people in all industries, but how do you measure the success?

Fourth-year environmental management and protection major Lilyana Elola, alongside Associate Professor Kevin Lin in the Experience Industry Management Department, are researching ways to use advanced technology such as eye tracking to improve consumer experiences. The research is just one example of the work that will be conducted in Cal Poly’s new Experience Innovation Lab that will open to students later this academic year.

In a recent pilot project, part of the college’s 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Program, Elola and Lin partnered with the hospitality industry to test the use of eye tracking to enhance sustainability initiatives at a local hotel, the Allegretto Vineyard Resort. Participants in the project were outfitted with glasses that track and measure where a person looks and for how long, as well as a wristband that measured emotional responses by tracking a user’s heart rate. “We are able to use cutting-edge technology to get to the core of people’s experiences to promote and provide better experiences for attendees, while helping businesses improve their bottom line by better designing their customer experience journeys,” Lin said.

Elola worked with staff at the Allegretto to identify six areas of sustainability efforts to measure, including energy-efficient lighting, signage encouraging reduced water usage and sensor-activated faucets, reusable drinkware, biodegradable toiletries, water refilling stations and drought-resistant landscaping. Participants in the pilot project then independently wandered the hotel lobby and guest rooms while wearing Tobii Eye Tracker glasses and an E4 Empatica wristband, both recently purchased by the Experience Industry Management Department with grant funding. Elola then monitored participant responses to better understand how an actual customer would act in that setting.

Ultimately, Elola found that less than half of the hotel’s efforts created a lasting experience — one that is recognized, reacted to and remembered — for participants. All participants noticed the compostable toiletries, drought-resistant plants, and reusable drinkware according to their eye-tracking data, yet many of them couldn’t recall seeing them when surveyed later and none elicited an emotional response.

“This is a revolutionized way of measuring how sustainability efforts affect customer loyalty and value. Businesses want to know if they are providing the right things and we can provide clarity on this matter,” Elola said. “If people are not having a lasting experience or are not being encouraged to embrace sustainability practices, then it is not profitable for the businesses and they can then reappropriate their resources in a way that is more impactful.”

With the pilot study successful, Lin will now seek additional funding to expand the research, the scope of which could apply to all industries and impact everything from airport signage and hotel lobbies to bus-riding experiences. “You name it,” Lin said. “Where there is experience, this applies.”



As the world population continues to grow and is predicted to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, the challenge of feeding future generations in a way that is sustainable and reduces environmental impact is critical.

Associate Professor Gregory Schwartz and fifth-year bioresource and agricultural engineering major Raven Middleton are researching ways to do that through aquaculture — raising fish and plants in water in a synergistic system that attempts to lessen the environmental impact of ocean farming while increasing food production.In September, through a partnership with Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, Schwartz and Middleton successfully moved 200 juvenile California yellowtail fish, a cultured species of saltwater fish from San Diego, California to the Cal Poly campus — a feat that involved a full day’s travel and weeks of meticulous planning. The fish are now part of a larger system built in the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department’s lab that will provide valuable research over the next two years.

“There are so many areas of aquaculture that can be improved and countless reasons why research like this is important to the future,” Schwartz said. “It is important to expose students to aquaculture systems so that they can go into the workforce both interested and ready to make a difference.”

Middleton spent more than two months building and fine-tuning the saltwater multi-trophic aquaculture system that houses the fish as part of the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program. The recirculating system has an intricate number of connected parts, including tanks, filters, sterilization tools and temperature controls that essentially ensure that with the right balance, the entire food system functions independently.

For now, the fish live in a 350-gallon tank from which the water flows to varying tanks containing seaweed and additional filters and then back again to the fish. Oysters will also be added in the future. The seaweed, being cultivated by another student project, and oysters are part of the natural system that will remove nitrates and particulates from the water. The filters add additional purification while the system has time to mature to its fullest potential. Eventually, as the fish grow, a second 350-gallon tank will be added.

“We are measuring for performance,” Middleton said. “If this can be done inland, it provides new opportunities for food production.”

Middleton, who grew up in Southern California and does not have any prior experience in agriculture, will spend his final year at Cal Poly working on the project. His classes in the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department have inspired him to pursue a career in water regulation.

However, the research will continue for years to come. “Just like other areas of agriculture and food production, there is no way to address all of the issues at one time,” said Schwartz, who has studied aquaculture for more than 25 years. “Yet this research project is a big step to understanding how efficient aquacultural systems can be built anywhere in the world while controlling the environmental impact that we have. The food needed to feed the future populations must come from somewhere, why not here?”


Nitrogen Rich

The mounting pressure to produce more food organically as consumer demand continues to grow is challenged by typically lower yields of organic crops than those grown by conventional farming methods — something that Cal Poly researchers are working tirelessly to change.

Healthy soil is essential for growing productive crops, with nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium providing essential nourishment to growing plants. The challenge in organic soil health is maintaining those nutrients without using synthetic fertilizers. Fourth-year environmental earth and soil science major Shane Egerstrom and fourth-year environmental management and protection major Taylor Van Rossum are working with Assistant Professor Charlotte Decock of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department to further understand how key nutrients in soils are made available to plants through mineralization to help provide solutions to organic producers.

“With conventional farming, producers are able to apply fertilizers that provide these nutrients immediately to the plants they are growing,” Decock said. “In organic farming, there are different steps needed to make nutrients available, such as allowing microorganisms to naturally breakdown organic fertilizers, which makes it more difficult to predict how much of the needed nutrients will become available at a certain time and how to match that to the times that plants will need it.”

Throughout the summer Egerstrom and Van Rossum, both participants in the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, did lab incubations of soils from organic farms using 12 different organic fertilizers to study how nitrogen is mineralized in the soil. Egerstrom focused his efforts on soil provided by Grimmway Farms, researching how varying temperatures impact nutrient release of different fertilizers. Van Rossum researched a different aspect of soil health – how existing soil properties impact the release of nitrogen in soil.

Soil health and fertility will be a major research component of the college’s new Grimm Family Center for Organic Production and Research. The organic industry is one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This emphasis on organic production and research is of particular importance in California, which accounts for 40% of all organic production in the nation. The center will serve as a hub for students such as Egerstrom and Van Rossum to work with experts from across the industry to develop solutions to the most pressing issues related to organic production and agriculture.

“What we are ultimately working toward is making organic farming more accessible by using science and lab analysis to provide the best information possible to growers,” said Van Rossum. “This is a step toward more sustainable ways of getting nitrogen back to the soil and making it healthier for the future of agriculture.”


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