Imagine if you could try your hand at Caltech research for six weeks. In the Hybrid Summer Research Connection (HSRC), high school students and teachers do just that, experiencing campus and conducting studies with researchers at the top of their fields.
Erick Arias, a senior at Dymally High School south of Los Angeles, aims to study astrophysics and robotics. "My dad was fascinated by astronomy and put on shows about it when I was a kid, but he didn't finish high school," Arias says. During HSRC 2023, he searched telescope data for evidence of Lyman-alpha emitter galaxies—distant young galaxies that churn out stars. He was mentored by Caltech astrophysics graduate student Delaney Dunne, who studies star-forming galaxies in the COMAP research group, and Santa Ana High School physics teacher Joshua Gagnier. Arias's days were filled with Zoom calls, Python coding, tutorials, trial and error, and feedback. "I was able to meet my personal goals to learn more about Python and about astronomy," Arias reflected.
Fourteen alumni of HSRC 2022 are now at colleges and universities across California and the nation—including four UC campuses, Stanford, and Yale—majoring in an array of STEM fields. In 2023, 34 HSRC alumni are applying to college.
How It Works
A hybrid structure ensures that students from across Southern California can participate while living at home and fulfilling their work and family obligations. The orientation day, a midpoint check-in, and the final week are held on campus, while other activities are remote.
In 2023, HSRC served 40 rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and 10 teachers from 17 high schools. Three out of four of the students will be the first generation in their families to attend college. Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) partners with schools and educational nonprofits across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and Ventura counties to attract students who are hardworking, have a passion for science, and have limited access to STEM training and equipment.
Caltech graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, research scientists, and professors volunteered as mentors in 2023, representing 10 research groups across astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and seismology. With expert guidance from the CTLO, which manages the program, mentors design and lead research projects that can be completed online. A high school teacher joins each research team, helping the Caltech mentors refine and carry out their instructional projects.
In each project, three to five students from different schools conduct research together, videoconferencing often with their Caltech mentors and the associated high school teacher. In the final week, students live in Caltech's Marks House and enjoy laboratory tours, talks, meals, and a night at the Mount Wilson Observatory. On the last day, they present their own research, surrounded by family members and the community they have built.
Potential Spotted in a Pandemic Workaround
In 2020, in response to the pandemic, the CTLO created a virtual version of the Summer Research Connection, an on-campus program for students who live nearby. The following winter, when medical technologist Joe Kiani joined Caltech's Board of Trustees, he saw that a hybrid program could have much broader geographic and economic reach. He funded HSRC for three years through the Masimo Foundation.
"Joe Kiani learned of our success in operating SRC remotely in 2020," says Mitch Aiken, the CTLO's associate director for educational outreach. "He proposed taking advantage of our newly developed remote capabilities to expand SRC to deserving students far afield from Pasadena."
Valued by Caltech Students and Postdoctoral Scholars
For the Caltech students and postdoctoral scholars who volunteer as mentors, HSRC offers meaningful community engagement. Modeling the structure of undergraduate instruction with a research component, it offers a competitive edge in teaching and leadership training. Two Caltech alumni who served as HSRC mentors in 2022 secured tenure-track faculty positions at Harvard University and Cal State LA in 2023.
CTLO experts teach the Caltech mentors curriculum design as they develop projects for the high school students to conduct. Participating high school teachers arrive two weeks early to meet the mentors, learn about the research, and ground-truth the projects for high school ability levels. Then, with a teacher's help, each Caltech mentor works with several students.
"The first time each of my students produced a plot in Python was very cool," says Caltech mentor Dunne. "It seemed like all of them realized at once that they were actually coding and using coding to do real research. It was incredibly rewarding to watch my students come to understand what they were learning and gain confidence in their ability to perform the research."
Programming Crafted to Prepare Students for College
HSRC goes beyond an in-depth research experience and is strategically planned to remove obstacles faced by high-achieving students from communities with limited college counseling and STEM programs.
In partnership with College Access Plan, CTLO staff help students learn how to apply to, select, and thrive while at college. Participants keep the laptops provided by HSRC as tools for their academic futures. Students' family members are invited to orientation and the final presentations to help them gain comfort with college campuses and research. To demonstrate to participants that they belong in and can succeed in STEM colleges and careers, exemplary researchers with representative backgrounds give talks.
Transformational Impact for Teachers
"The Hybrid Summer Research Connection is a profound professional development program for teachers," says Gagnier, who has participated all three years. After learning from Caltech students about their own high school preparation, he added relevant mathematical concepts and reading of scientific papers to the classes he teaches at Santa Ana High School and completed extensive training so that he could teach AP computer science.
Now that several Santa Ana High School students have conducted HSRC research, Gagnier says they have become models of STEM success for their classmates. He sees a ripple effect across the school.
Banner image: Left to right, Santa Ana High School physics teacher Joshua Gagnier, Dymally High School senior Erick Arias, Van Nuys High School senior Melanie Contreras, Hawthorne Math and Science Academy sophomore Andre Castillo, Santa Ana High School senior Edward Gonzalez, and Caltech astrophysics graduate student Delaney Dunne.