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  • (Pictured from left to right): Kate Samaniego and James Maloney (Caltech)
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • (Pictured) Sarah Veyna
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • (Pictured) Aidan Montiel
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • (Pictured from left to right) Michael Wang and Patrick Suh
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • Julius Su (Caltech) lecturing
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
07/28/2015 09:47:01

Science for the Community

On the grounds of San Marino's Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens—to the north of the Chinese Gardens, in the private, half-acre Huntington Ranch area—nearly two dozen middle- and high-school students have been spending this summer measuring the levels of nitrogen in the soils around them to help the ranch determine whether its soil is up to the challenge of growing an urban garden.

This hands-on research experience is part of the Community Science Academy @ Caltech, which is affiliated with Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO). The 23 first-timers in what is called CSA 1 are studying biological systems at the ranch; a similar number of continuing students, in CSA 2, are studying engineering and programming, and are building their own scientific instruments.

The program runs three days a week for six weeks. For CSA 1 students, it began on June 15 with soil sampling; by July 24, when it ends, students will have designed and performed their own experiments.

CSA@Caltech is now in its second year. It initially was funded with support from a National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award to Caltech Professor of Biology Bruce Hay. In addition, the Pasadena Educational Foundation and the Siemens Foundation currently provide support for scholarships that allow all students from the Pasadena Unified School District to attend the program free of charge.

The students start most days with lectures by members of the Caltech staff. Every student is issued an iPad and keyboard for note taking and fieldwork. This technology allows the lectures to become interactive presentations using software that allows constant feedback between teacher and student. They spend much of their time at the CTLO on the Caltech campus, for talks on topics including soil and water quality, pest control, environmental monitoring, and remote sensing. They also work in the undergraduate teaching labs in Caltech's Divisions of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Biology and Biological Engineering for lessons on plant processing and bacterial detection, respectively.

At the Huntington Library, students apply in an outdoor setting what they have learned and practiced in Caltech classrooms and labs. For example, they gather soil samples from gardens and water samples from lily ponds for nitrate and ammonia testing; they conduct experiments on ant behavior; and they design and build sensor-carrying remote-controlled powered kites, which they fly over the Library grounds.

"These hands-on methods are critical for teaching students about the collaborative nature of science, the system of trial and error, and the importance of following protocols in scientific experimentation and analysis," says James Maloney (MS '06), one of the two codirectors of the CSA@Caltech program. Even while the students are getting what may well be their first exposure to research, they are also making a serious contribution to the Huntington's understanding of the ranch's viability as an urban garden. The ranch was originally a gravel parking lot, notes ranch coordinator Kyra Saegusa. It took six years for the soil to be rebuilt with sheets of mulch. The question now is whether it is ready for growing fruits and vegetables.

If the shouts of "I got a worm!" from one 13-year-old field worker are any indication, the soil restoration is certainly moving in the right direction.

The ultimate goal of CSA@Caltech—to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in secondary education and to help create the next generation of scientists—is further buttressed by tours of Caltech labs, where researchers such as Sarah Reisman, professor of chemistry, talked to the CSA@Caltech students about life as a scientist. Some of the students have already chosen areas in which they think they would like to specialize: for instance, Eris, a ninth grader from Blair High School in CSA 2, wants to study engineering and chemistry; Brandon, a CSA 2 ninth grader from Pasadena High School, wants to go into theoretical physics; and CSA 1 student Connor, an eighth grader from Sierra Madre Middle School, wants to be an aerospace engineer.

Building on this success, CSA@Caltech plans to add a third year of study next summer and continue their development of new educational technologies. "Our goal is to make high-quality science accessible to all," says CSA@Caltech codirector Julius Su (BS '98, BS '99, PhD '07).

Written by James Astorga