• YESS instructor Anusha Narayan (center) shows students John Easton (at left) and Andres Casas how to operate equipment in the electrophysiology teaching lab.
    Credit: Mike Rogers
  • Joel Dominguez says that besides the new information that he is learning through YESS, the program is also teaching him "how to think more critically."
    Credit: Mike Rogers
06/30/2010 18:20:00

Caltech Says YESS to Future Scientists

Top High School Students Dive Into College-Level Science in Summer Program

One week after completing his junior year at Pasadena High School, Joel Dominguez was back in class, but this time he wasn't in high school—he was enrolled at Caltech. Dominguez, 17, is one of 29 high school students from around the United States spending three activity-packed weeks on the Caltech campus studying neurobiology and physics as part of Caltech's annual Young Engineering and Science Scholars (YESS) program.

To get into YESS, a student must be enrolled in high school and demonstrate exceptional skills in science and math. Students in the program are also typically from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in science—Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans, among others. Thanks to generous support from the Irvine Foundation at the program's inception, and for the past five years from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, YESS covers all the students' expenses except travel—although in special cases, the program will cover that too.

Admission to YESS is extremely competitive—more than 1500 applicants vied for this year's 29 spots—so Dominguez actually feels lucky to be in the classroom this summer while his friends are hanging out. "My friends tell me that I'm an overachiever, but I tell them that I just want to get ahead and learn more," Dominguez says.

Participants in the YESS program live in campus dorms and spend their mornings studying neuroscience and their afternoons learning physics, including classical mechanics. The classes, which are designed and taught by a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, are a combination of lectures, hands-on experiments, and lab tours. There is also a final project in the physics class: teams of students work together to each build a catapult that can launch an egg, and then compete against one another in contests of accuracy and distance.

Though rigorous, YESS is hardly punishment. Its students typically take the most advanced science courses offered in their high schools, but even so, that still leaves them thirsting for more, and the YESS program constantly challenges them with new information and experiences. On one recent morning, half of the students were in an electrophysiology teaching lab, learning how to build electrical circuits to model neuronal activity in the brain. The other half were attending a lecture on how the brain processes information when faced with complex visual stimuli. When they're not in class, YESS participants go on field trips, including a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA facility managed by Caltech.

"The information and content is college level," says Eva Graham, who oversees the YESS program as director of the Caltech Center for Diversity, "but it's taught at a pace appropriate for high school students." And for Dominguez, who wants to become a neurosurgeon, and has taken college-level courses at community colleges to supplement the science courses he takes in high school, the YESS courses give him a glimpse into the grueling coursework that looms ahead.

Joel Dominguez says that besides the new information that he is learning through YESS, the program is also teaching him "how to think more critically."
Credit: Mike Rogers

"The neuroscience material is new to me," says Dominguez, who expects to be the first person in his family to attend college. "And the physics is like college level. But I want a challenge. I want to learn more."

From the students' perspective, another welcome aspect of the program is that for many of them, it's the first time they've been surrounded by kids who have the same interests that they do. "This is the first time they're meeting students like themselves—kids who are into string theory," Graham says.

"It is amazing to be with other kids who are interested in science and math," Dominguez says. "They're so interested that they even interact with the teacher. That's a 180-degree turn from high school."

Written by Michael Rogers