UC Irvine seniors have waded into swamps in search of bugs, played out a tragic love story in a forest of human trees, designed and raced energy-efficient sports cars, and mapped out the future of digital journalism – all part of year-end projects that leave traditional finals in the dust.

“Students here are capable of so much more than filling in the bubbles on Scantron forms,” says Sharon Salinger, dean of undergraduate education, “and our innovative faculty members are great at coming up with creative, hands-on methods of evaluating what their students have learned and how they apply that knowledge in real-world situations.”

Here are some examples:

Getting their feet wet

“This is definitely the best test I’ve ever taken,” says biological sciences major Jessica Dillon, 21, as she emerges from the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve. She and classmates in “Bio Sci E179L” must identify 50 insects in glass vials, native and exotic plant species and even the occasional rubber snake coiled into thick brush.

“It’s a field freshwater lab,” explains senior lecturer Peter Bowler, who teaches the popular class. He rose at dawn to place the specimens in strategic locations.

The exam is no day at the beach – strict silence, carefully numbered logs and other rules prevail. Still, several students can’t help but gasp or laugh as the marsh’s cool mud bottom sucks at their flip-flops.

“This is the closest some of them have gotten to the wild. A few are a little frightened at first, but in the end I think they’ll remember what they learned here for the rest of their lives,” Bowler says. “And, you know, people pay good money at a spa for this.”

He plunges in himself, yelling cheerful encouragement to his students: “All right! Love that anoxic black mud! Ooh, ooh! Never felt better!”

A day at the races

Next to The Henry Samueli School of Engineering loading docks, inside the cramped engine shop, a crew of mechanical and electrical engineering majors are busy dismantling Delta – a sleek race car powered by compressed natural gas.

The vehicle won them first prize May 20 in the Energy Invitational at Riverside’s Adams Motorsports Park – and credits for the senior-project class.

“I love it, I really do,” says Pete Sekine, 22. “After four years of theoretical engineering classes, this is really cool.”

At the Energy Invitational, student teams compete for maximum distance in one hour on a dollar’s worth of energy.

Delta, with an aerodynamic white-and-blue front hood and other souped-up features, went 30 miles. But it bested challengers for a different reason: The UCLA, Cal Poly Pomona and other cars broke down on the track, victims of overly grand aspirations.

“Hey, a win by default is still a win,” notes graduating senior Joe Kaifesh, 21, who has overseen the engine shop for a year.

“School for me is wake up, go to the shop, go to class, go back to the shop, go home at midnight and sleep,” he says. “I love everything about it – the whole shebang.”

Kaifesh was stunned to learn that even advanced engineering students sometimes don’t know the difference between a nut and a bolt, or a Phillips screwdriver and a flat-head.

He is hoping his long hours as pit master for fellow seniors and juniors will help him snag a good job in the automotive design industry, ideally in aftermarket parts design.

In the meantime, he’ll stay busy monitoring students yanking out flanges and stripping the steering wheel, preparing Delta to be redesigned by next year’s class.­­

Writing the future of journalism

UCI assistant professor of English Erika Hayasaki asks students in her “Narratives in the Digital Age” class to envision a magazine or publishing house of the future. In the ever-evolving era of e-books, e-readers, iPhones and Kindles, students have come up with ideas for online magazines and smartphone apps on topics from science to sex.

For her group’s project, Carly Lanning collected narratives from survivors of rape, sexual assault and incest. Her goal is to lift the veil of secrecy around taboo issues. She will include the anecdotes in a blog featuring text, audio recordings and images as well as links to support groups and news articles about legislation related to sex crimes.

“The individual survivors get lost in statistics about victims of sexual violence,” says Lanning, a graduating senior majoring in literary journalism and English. “These stories show that there’s so much more to these women and men and they won’t be defined by these incidents.”

Nicholas Ma’s group proposed a Web-based publishing house where readers can purchase e-books and articles and comment on them via message-board applications built into the site.

“The name of the project is ‘Dialectic,’ which implies that we want people to engage in discussion forums and connect with the stories on a deeper, intellectual level,” says Ma, a graduating senior majoring in political science and business.

The articles available for sale would be nonfiction, narrative-journalism pieces covering controversial or hot-button issues. The project members are also looking at how they would fund and market such a website.

“We’re using sites like Yahoo! News and YouTube as models for how interactive we would like our publishing house to be,” Ma says. “We think it would be important to design features letting readers highlight article excerpts and then easily insert them into their message-board feedback.”

Ianna Paquette’s project is sure to please globetrotters. Her group proposed a travel app called “Exploro” that would allow users to customize their trips with tabs devoted to news articles, photographs, interactive forums and dining tips.

Learning about online publishing has exposed Paquette, a graduating senior majoring in English, to career opportunities in digital media. “There are so many different ways to publish material,” she says, “and the marketplace is more accessible for writers because of things like Kindle Singles and online publishing.”

The world is their stage

There are high school musicals, and then there’s “Drama 100 University Theatre,” a demanding, experimental class that this year cast talented undergraduates in a world premiere.

Drama professor Annie Loui adapted a 1913 French coming-of-age novel called The Lost Estate, about a teenager lost in the woods who turns up at a strange wedding party and ultimately ends up heartbroken. The production was anything but stuffy.

Using a technique known as “devised theater,” the actors not only played human characters but became horses, haunted woods and the deathbed of the female lead, Alison Boresi. The effect was striking: When narrator Jeffrey Salsbury skipped pebbles over a body of water formed by his classmates, they undulated in perfect mimicry of a pond rippling outward.

Loui, who usually directs advanced graduate classes, loved the chemistry and energy of the undergraduates. “They were just enormously enthusiastic and also really charmingly open to the creative journey,” she says.

All the students had good movement and acting skills, Loui adds, but they also struck her as “really good human beings. They were energized and positive, and they were really able to form a very strong troupe.”

The production earned rave reviews in local media, while the cast earned academic credits for rehearsal and production time.

Arts roundup

Graduating seniors in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts are also capping their college experience with exhibitions featuring an eclectic mix of photography, videography and studio art. Here are a few opportunities to witness their artistic output:

“Contest Space” showcases experimental digital video work by advanced studio art undergraduates that combines contemporary narrative, animation and politically engaged cinematic structures. Vegetarian polar bears, a robot who wants to be human, unsettling childhood traumas and identity politics are among the compelling themes. The exhibition may be visited through June 15 in the Art, Culture & Technology building’s Room Gallery.

“Noon landing,” the first studio art honors exhibition, features work by seniors Corrine Chan, DeNaye Mack, Maivy Xuan Nguyen, Gilda Nowparast, Varduhi Simonyan and Katie Tilford. Employing various visual media – sculpture, video, photography, painting, etc. – the artists explore topics such as subjectivity, constructed reality, cultural catastrophes, dislocation, memory, process and connectivity. The show runs through June 16 at the University Art Gallery.

“Proof” is an exhibition of senior photography projects by Dana Johnson, Tatiana Ortiz, Arielle Ramirez, Clarissa Ruiz and Varduhi Simonyan. Johnson’s work involves painted, camouflaged bodies that blend into their environments; Ortiz’s photos document the state of constant change in Los Angeles streets and neighborhoods; Ramirez’s color images depict a ghostly woman wearing a white dress in a variety of locations; Ruiz’s black-and-white photos show the human form in various acts of distortion or magnification in a way that finds beauty in the surreal; and Simonyan’s images of objects from her family’s native Armenia evoke cultural identity, loss and recollection. They may be viewed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, June 8, in Room 2206 of the Art, Culture & Technology building.