Tom Mannion has a Zoom setup any oenophile would envy. His open laptop, set on a stack of cookbooks and wine guides, is flanked by a loaf of bread and wine bottles to one side and an arsenal of glassware on the other. From his command center, the senior director of student activities and programs explains the science of winemaking and wine tasting to a dozen Caltech seniors at a time.
Mannion's class is one piece of a Senior Series reinvented by the Office of Residential Experience for the remote-learning era. Caltech traditionally celebrates its seniors with a series of events leading up to commencement, including House gatherings, movie nights, and the time-honored tradition of Ditch Day. Mannion says that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Caltech was determined to send off its graduates in style.
"We are doing these events because the last month of the student experience is typically one of the most exciting and interesting months in their Caltech experience, a time they have been looking forward to," he says. "Anything that we can do to continue our unique Caltech experiences among our small but impactful community during these challenging times is well worth the effort."
Mannion's Introduction to Wine and Enology was an immediate hit, with all five sessions filling up quickly. Starting with the role of yeast, he walked students through the process of fermentation and the by-products it creates as well as flavor-refining techniques such as oaking and malolactic fermentation, which transforms the malic acid naturally present in grapes to the more palatable lactic acid. Then came the payoff: tasting and food pairing.
Although students couldn't enjoy the in-person experience of tasting exactly the same wine and food as the rest of the class, it was a chance to refine their palates remotely. Mannion asked the participants to buy a bottle or more of wine beforehand, because "a bit of diversity makes the class better," then asked around during class to see who was tasting what. "I like this kind of event because it provides a great sense of community and is a morale booster during our social isolation and the sometimes isolating feeling of being bogged down by work," says Caltech senior and Bechtel resident Alex Cui. "It's just great to get an education in things applicable to real life."
Senior Series also included nine virtual happy hours, one for the seniors of each house, as well as shared movie-screening experiences. Kip Thorne (BS '62), Nobel laureate and Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, led a shared screening of Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic full of space travel and wormholes. Thorne served as the film's scientific adviser and guided the creation of its cinematic black hole.
On June 9, Caltech alums Martin Nguyen (BS '00) and Bena Currin (BS '87) will host a showing of Ratatouille, which both of them worked on while at Pixar. Nguyen served as the movie's food development lead and later won an Annie Award for outstanding effects animation in Finding Nemo.
No spring term at Caltech would be complete without Ditch Day. As part of this decades-long tradition, seniors vacate campus with little warning, leaving behind "stacks," or a series of puzzles and challenges to keep the other undergraduates occupied. This year, with stay-at-home orders in place and undergraduates away from campus, Ditch Day shifted to a virtual form, with stacks over Zoom featuring elaborate crosswords and word searches, quantum circuit diagrams, and Nate Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, challenging students with the kinds of problems a Netflix employee might have to solve. The day concluded with a question-and-answer session with SpaceX vice president of propulsion Will Heltsley (BS '04) and an after-party in a Minecraft recreation of the Blacker lounge and courtyard.