IdeaLabs Reach Across Disciplines to Solve Global Problems

What we’ve found at Berkeley about how to get people to work together is that you define some kind of very big problem that needs to be solved, and attack it from a range of viewpoints.

— Richard Newton

IdeaLabs, a component of the Big Ideas@Berkeley program, are student-led hubs for discussion and idea-sharing around issues that are important to students—anything from climate change and health to safe water, nanotechnology, or household energy. The groups are multi-disciplinary gatherings of undergraduate and graduate students designed to bring out a range of viewpoints, ideas, and strategies.

Each IdeaLab is unique, reflecting the goals and passions of the students behind it. The groups host regular discussions and events where students can gain new perspectives, share ideas, and work together with peers they might never meet in a classroom—engineers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and science buffs talk over a common interest with anthropologists, health experts, and public policy majors.

Estrella Sainburg, student Director of the Berkeley Water Group IdeaLab, said the most rewarding part of leading the IdeaLab was hearing a new member’s excitement at finding a place on campus where other students shared her passion for water issues.

A visual representation of BART ridership data. The image is split into two main sections: the left side displays a map of the San Francisco Bay Area with BART stations and routes marked in various colors, and the right side shows a circular chord diagram with interconnected lines and segments representing the ridership flow between different stations. Each station is labeled around the circumference of the circle, and lines of various thicknesses connect the stations, indicating the volume of riders traveling between them.
The Visualizing Urban Data IdeaLab students held a hackathon on the BART strike in October 2013, producing interactive visualizations on salaries, ridership, traffic, and more. The IdeaLab’s student director, Lewis Lehe, produced the above graphic.

IdeaLabs are more than just discussion groups, however—they are geared toward connecting students who can together explore real solutions to critical challenges. The Visualizing Urban Data IdeaLab recently hosted a hackathon to make sense of data related to the impending BART strike, including BART employees’ salaries, traffic, and ridership. “It was a challenge to work on an event transpiring in real time,” said VUD IdeaLab Director Lewis Lehe. The resulting projects have spurred online discussions and attracted attention from students across disciplines. “Coders want to see our visualizations. Planners and civil engineers want to experience urban spaces in a fresh way,” Lehe shared.

“We’re excited to see the ideas and projects that these IdeaLabs continue to produce,” said Phillip Denny, Manager of the Big Ideas@Berkeley program at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. “You can find real innovation at the intersection of so many different perspectives. The interdisciplinary Big Ideas@Berkeley projects we see every year are a testament to that.”

Students in the Climate Change and Health IdeaLab have benefited from the chance to exchange ideas with peers from other disciplines.

IdeaLabs have shown the benefits of bringing together diverse groups of students. Zoe Chafe, the student Director of the Climate Change and Health IdeaLab, described a visiting researcher’s recent presentation on the health “co-benefits” of climate change mitigation strategies in China. At the end of her presentation, a public health student asked about her health methodologies. Participants from the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab asked about her collaborations with institutions in China. Other students wanted to know more about the economic valuation she used when presenting trade-offs. “This is exactly the type of intellectual exchange we are hoping to support: an open forum where there are no stupid questions and everyone is encouraged to share their knowledge,” said Chafe.

IdeaLabs operate under the umbrella of the Big Ideas program. All IdeaLabs invite new undergraduate and graduate student members from across campus.

Visit bigideascontest.org/idealabs to join an active group or learn how to start your own!

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship