For the fourth year in a row, Caltech hosted active-duty military and veterans who want to prepare for a transition to undergraduate study in STEM fields.
Under the auspices of the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), founded in 2012 "to propel enlisted veterans and service members towards success in higher education and beyond," Caltech recently welcomed 10 warrior-scholars to campus. From June 25 to 30, these individuals attended lectures given by Caltech and JPL scientists, STEM tutorials led by student veterans from WSP, and lessons in time management and other important tools for academic success.
Veterans have noted that many aspects of military life, including its rigorous discipline, have prepared them well for higher education. Still, higher education has its own culture, and bootcamp participants get a crash course in everything from participating in the classroom and prioritizing study time to building supportive relationships with university administrators, professors, and other students.
"It's just that inertia of going back to college when you're an older person," says Warren Knowles, who is currently serving in the Navy but hopes to study mathematics, computer science, or possibly economics in college. "I'm 31 now, and I'd be going to school with 18-year-olds. But we have other experiences too. The program helps us get over that initial inertia. Members of the military might not know there is need-based aid; they might not know there's a veterans' community in many schools; they might not know many schools have lots of nontraditional students. That's one of the things I've learned this week."
The students learned about calculating motion in a straight line during a lecture by Caltech postdoctoral research associate in physics Shina Adegoke. "The students are great," Adegoke said. "The class was lively and interactive. They showed a lot of motivation."
Motion in two directions was the topic taken on by postdoctoral research associate in physics Joanna Piotrowska-Karpov. She too was impressed by the students, whom she deemed "very engaged, focused, and genuinely interested in learning during the class. They were a little shy at first, but by the end they were happy to interact and ask questions about the class and my field of research."
Jameson Rollins, control and data systems software lead for Caltech's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), offered WSP participants two days of lectures on Newton's laws and energy. In short order, he walked the students through some basic principles in physics and the equations needed to calculate energy and motion. He even dipped into the origins of calculus. "I just find the experience to be incredibly rewarding," Rollins says. "It feels great to help people understand these concepts because I remember how good it felt when I started to understand them. It's nice to pass that on."
Ninety percent of WSP alumni have completed their college degree or are on track to finish. Its alumni are also diverse: 60 percent are first-generation college students, 70 percent are people of color, and 28 percent are women.
Alumnus Kiel Malate, currently an undergraduate computer science major at Columbia University, took classes at Pasadena City College before entering the military. As his tour of duty drew to a close, he attended two WSP-sponsored bootcamps, one in STEM and the other in the humanities. Malate credits these experiences with giving him the confidence to apply and return to college. Now he spends his summers working with WSP as a mentor—most recently at Caltech's bootcamp—to help other service members transition to college.
The motivating force behind Caltech's STEM bootcamp is Ken Hargreaves, associate vice president for civic engagement and external affairs. A veteran himself, Hargreaves attends to both the vision of the WSP bootcamp and the many details of putting together a program for veterans and enlisted service members each year. For its first two years, the WSP bootcamp at Caltech had to be conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now Hargreaves is able to meet with students throughout their week on campus, showing them by example as much as through conversation what may be possible as they move into civilian life.