Photo credit: Stephanie Burbank

Sophomore College

Sophomore College (known as SoCo in Stanford vernacular) is an immersive, three-week academic opportunity available to incoming sophomores. Students arrive on campus before the traditional start of fall quarter in early September and join a cohort of 12-16 students embarking on intensive study of one subject. The Bill Lane Center for the American West sponsors a SoCo course every year covering topics and issues central to the Western region. 

The course usually involves a week of on-campus learning and two weeks of field study somewhere in the West. Past courses have taken students to Utah and the Southwest, Washington and the Northwest, and Hawaii and the Pacific. 

The 2023 SoCo course will be River and Region: The Columbia River and the Shaping of the Pacific Northwest, led by Professor David Kennedy (History) and Professor David Freyberg (Civil and Environmental Engineering).

The September 2023 SoCo begins on Tuesday, September 5, 2023 (with students arriving on campus on Labor Day, Monday, September 4, 2023) and ends on Friday, September 22, 2023. Classes start for fall quarter Monday, September 25, 2023. 

The first few and last days of SoCo will be on campus. The approximately two weeks in between will be in the field. 

Students interested in applying should join our mailing list.

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2023: River and Region: The Columbia River and the Shaping of the Pacific Northwest 

This seminar will explore the crucial role of the Columbia River in the past, present, and future of the Pacific Northwest. Topics will include the lives and legacies of the indigenous peoples that Lewis and Clark encountered more than two centuries ago; the historic fisheries that attracted thousands of Chinese and, later, Scandinavian workers; the New Deal’s epic dam-building initiatives beginning in the 1930s; the impact of the Manhattan Project’s plutonium bomb development at Hanford Atomic Works in WWII; and the twenty-first-century server farms dotted across the Columbia Plateau. We will visit with local water managers, farmers, ranchers, loggers, Native American fishermen, and energy administrators, as well as elected officials and environmental activists, to examine the hydrologic, meteorologic, and geologic bases of the River’s water and energy resources, and the practical, social, environmental, economic, and political issues surrounding their development in the Pacific Northwest region.

The Columbia River and its watershed provide a revealing lens on a host of issues. A transnational, multi-state river with the largest residual populations of anadromous salmonids in the continental US, it is a major source of renewable hydroelectric power. (The Grand Coulee dam powerhouse is the largest-capacity hydropower facility in the US; nearly 50% of Oregon’s electricity generation flows from hydropower; in Washington State it’s nearly two-thirds, the highest in the nation.)  The river provides a major bulk commodity transportation link from the interior West to the sea via an elaborate system of locks. It irrigates nearly 700,000 acres of sprawling wheat ranches and fruit farms in the federally administered Columbia Basin Project. We will look at all these issues with respect to rapid climate change, ecosystem impacts, economics, and public policy.

We will begin with classroom briefings on campus, in preparation for the two-week field portion of the seminar.  We will then travel widely throughout the Columbia basin, visiting water and energy facilities across the watershed, e.g., hydro, solar, wind, and natural gas power plants; dams and reservoirs with their powerhouses, fish passage facilities, navigation locks, and flood-mitigation systems; tribal organizations; irrigation projects; the Hanford Nuclear Reservation; and offices of regulatory agencies.  We will meet with relevant policy experts and public officials, along with several of the stakeholders in the basin.

Over the summer students will be responsible for assigned readings from several sources, including monographs, online materials, and recent news articles.  During the trip, students will work in small groups to analyze and assess one aspect of the river’s utilization, and the challenges to responsible management going forward.  The seminar will culminate in presentations to an audience of Stanford alumni in Portland, Oregon.


David M. Kennedy

David Kennedy

Founding Co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford University








David Freyberg

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment

Past Courses

Energy in Hawaii: Forefront of Clean Energy Technology and Policy (2019 and 2022)

We explored practical, social, technical, and political issues surrounding energy production and use in Hawaii. Hawaii is at the forefront of changes in the electric grid and the uses of electricity, with an aspirational goal for 100% carbon-free electricity in 2045. Hawaii also has passed legislation that aspires to 100% fossil-free transportation by 2040. Significant growth of behind-the-meter solar generation with storage has led to opportunities for the better use of these resources for maintaining grid reliability, while also increasing concerns related to grid stability and social equity. Because of these factors, there is a heightened interest nationally from federal agencies, particularly Energy and Defense. On this trip, we considered the availability and viability of solar, wind, and geothermal resources, while also considering the economic impact on Hawaii of large-scale importation of oil for generating electricity and transportation. We looked into emerging questions related to the reliability and resiliency of the grids on different islands in the state, all while taking into account the technical, societal, cultural, natural resource, and political milieu which is the unique nature of Hawaii.

Over the course of this SoCo, we learned about energy and its context in Hawaii, then traveled to various field sites including a wind farm, a utility-scale solar farm, an oil-fired power plant, a waste-to-energy facility, wave turbine, an oil refinery, a synthetic gas production facility, a biofueled thermal generator, a geothermal plant, and areas where natural resources are impacted by energy resource utilization.   We met with relevant policy experts and public officials from governmental agencies, utilities, universities, and public interest groups. The course concluded with group presentations by the students.



Bruce Cain

Bruce Cain
Faculty Director, The Bill Lane Center for the American West






Terry Surles
Senior Advisor, Enabling Technologies, California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE)

2019: Energy in Hawaii

In 2019, our SoCo trip spent two weeks in Hawaii studying the future of sustainable energy sources. Instructors: Sally Benson and Terry Surles. 

2018: Fighting Over our Common Heritage

We journeyed to the heartland of the American West to learn about public lands and the issues that surround them. Instructors: Bruce Cain and Buzz Thompson. 

2017: Water and Power in the Pacific Northwest

This course brought students to the Pacific Northwest to study the ever-important issue of water. Instructors: Sally Benson, David Freyberg, and Bruce Cain.

2016: Managing Natural Resources on Native Lands

This course traveled across the Northwest studying contemporary issues facing Native American communities. Instructors: Bruce Cain and Buzz Thompson. 

2015: Energy in the Southwest

This course examined the technical, social and political issues surrounding energy management and use in California, Nevada and Arizona. Instructors: Sally Benson, Bruce Cain, and David Freyberg.

2014: Energy in the West

Students travelled 1,500 miles across Wyoming to study energy generation and extraction. Instructors: Sally Benson, Bruce Cain, and David Freyberg.

Student Profiles


There are many ways to get involved with the Lane Center and each students' road will be different.  We invite you to read the stories of previous Lane Center students who shared their paths. You may decide to follow their lead or use their experiences as inspiration to write your own story.

Visit our student profiles page.

2019 SoCo in Hawaii