A gift that allows for a new hybrid approach to a longstanding program will help the Institute connect with more students across Southern California and enhance graduate student engagement in educational endeavors.
Since 2008, high school students and pre-college teachers from the Pasadena Unified School District have come to Caltech’s campus during the summer for a six-week deep dive into the process of university research. The Summer Research Connection (SRC) participants become lab members who work alongside Caltech undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty, and present their work at the end of the summer. In recent years, they have helped to build lasers for physics experiments, analyze data about nearby asteroids, and sample the local ecosystem for biology surveys, gaining an introduction not only to Caltech but also to a culture of high-level scientific research.
Now the SRC is set to offer this opportunity to many more students across the Los Angeles metro area and Orange County. Thanks to a gift to the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) from the Masimo Foundation, of which Caltech trustee Joe Kiani is Chairman, the initiative will expand in the form of a new partially in-person, partially remote Hybrid Summer Research Connection (HSRC) program that uses the virtual learning techniques refined during the COVID-19 pandemic to expand participation. The new approach will more than double the number of participants from 30 to approximately 70 and from four to 14 teachers, over the next three years, extending the program’s reach into underserved communities.
“Caltech has propelled the human race forward throughout its rich history,” Kiani says. “We have to make sure its work continues. But we also want to make sure its students, faculty, and even trustees come from all backgrounds that reflect our population. The best way to do that is to make sure the future pool is filled with diversity, starting with some of the underserved communities in our own backyard.”
In future years, HSRC students will come to campus for an orientation day at the beginning of summer, spend five weeks conducting remote research, and return to campus for a weeklong capstone experience that will include sharing their work. They will also stay connected with the program and each other through events during the school year. In this way, the HSRC will allow Caltech to engage with students from districts beyond the immediate Pasadena area such as Santa Ana, East Los Angeles, and Long Beach, where the Institute has already worked remotely with students through the Urban Math Collaborative, says Cassandra Horii, assistant vice provost and director of CTLO.
“We greatly appreciate Mr. Kiani’s commitment to helping young people explore and develop their interests in STEM fields, particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds who continue to have fewer opportunities to envision themselves as future scientists and engineers,” Horii says. “The Masimo Foundation gift will enable high school students and teachers from the greater L.A. area to connect with Caltech student-researchers and faculty in meaningful and authentic ways, both during the summer and year-round.”
Horii says some of the inspiration for the HSRC was born of necessity. In 2020, Caltech moved all of its summer programs to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing organizers to reimagine formerly in-person programs like SRC. Mentors guided projects that involved data analysis, programming, and coding entirely over Zoom. For research that required taking physical samples, CTLO helped Caltech instructors to send kits or instruments to students’ or teachers’ homes. “That success inspired us to think creatively for the future,” Horii says, “and through the conversations with Mr. Kiani, the idea emerged to consider the larger Los Angeles region and build an approach that is relevant to universities in metropolitan areas here and elsewhere.”
Dianne K. Newman, Caltech’s Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology, participated in the remote SRC in 2020 and continued to communicate with the Pasadena high school students she mentored throughout their college application process. “It is nice to feel more connected to the Pasadena community and to help talented local students expand their horizons and learn about types of scientific careers they never realized existed before,” Newman says. “It was gratifying to see the two seniors in my SRC group get into good colleges they were interested in attending and express enthusiasm for pursuing biological research when they get there. And, equally importantly, when the teacher I was paired with decided to implement a version of what we’d done together in the SRC for the entire 9th-grade class at his school this past academic year, I really felt like the time I’d spent with my SRC group was being magnified in a very positive way.”
The expansion of HSRC is only part of Masimo Foundation’s gift to enrich teaching and learning at Caltech. CTLO also will increase staffing to focus specifically on supporting graduate students who are involved in educational endeavors at Caltech. Whether as teaching assistants to Caltech students or mentors to pre-college students, engaging graduate students in teaching can help them become future STEM leaders in higher education, national labs, and industry, Horii says.
“As Caltech’s incoming graduate classes become more diverse, creating new ways for them to live out their deep commitments to becoming effective teachers and mentors who contribute to the inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility of STEM fields is very important,” she says.