How UC Merced undergrads are solving real-life problems, from BART escalators to the disappearing monarch butterfly.

For engineering students at UC Merced, real-life job experience doesn’t require a trip to the big city — it comes to them.

“We create a partnership with a particular industry player that can be anybody who works in any engineering field,” says Alejandro Gutierrez, engineering professor at UC Merced. “They pitch projects to us, real projects, problems that they actually have to solve right now in their facilities.”

The projects, unveiled at the Innovate to Grow expo today, Friday, May 11, are the last challenge of the students’ undergraduate careers, and include everything from shrinking carbon footprints to improving escalators for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

One project — that particularly underscores the campus’ unique emphasis on interdisciplinary learning — has students Gloria Ligunas and Haley Hurd working to save California’s monarch butterflies.

There were 10 million monarchs in California in the 1980s, but there are estimated to be only 300,000 today. The nature of their diet is one of the major reasons for the decline.

Kathy Keatley Garvey/UC Davis

“Milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat,” says Haley Hurd, a fourth-year environmental engineering student. “So it’s very important for them in general, since it’s their only food source and due to a lot of industrialization and building on their habitat, they’ve lost a lot of it.”

Conservationists want to plant milkweed to encourage the monarchs to return. But their seeds are carried in a dandelion-like fluff that is hard to harvest and package.

What many would see as an ecological problem, Hurd and Ligunas see as a design problem.

“What we’re doing is we’re creating a machine to be able to rip the fluff off of the seed,” says Ligunas. Their design will cause the seed to separate from the fluff, which will be vacuumed away, leaving pure seed at the bottom: exactly what they need.

Like the other engineering students, Hurd and Ligunas will be graded on whether or not they can solve their problem. If they can bring back the monarch butterfly, it will be a well-deserved A.

To learn more about Hurd and Ligunas' work, and the other exciting engineering projects at UC Merced, check out our One Bold Idea podcast above. One Bold Idea tells stories of pivotal moments in California history that have shaped the world, spanning topics from the arts, health, agriculture and technology. This series is produced in celebration of the University of California's 150th anniversary. For more stories, visit Subscribe to One Bold Idea on Stitcher or iTunes.

You can also follow #I2G for updates on the Friday, May 11 Innovate to Grow expo that showcases the work of these students.