Hours before Caltech materials science professor Chiara Daraio delivered a Watson Lecture on new materials that will allow garments to bring together the physical and digital worlds, six Los Angeles high school students explored her laboratory to see firsthand how these materials are made.
The students, from James A. Garfield Senior High School in unincorporated East L.A., visited Caltech as part of the Junior Watson program, which invites high-achieving local students to campus for in-depth experiences related to the Earnest C. Watson Lectures.
About the Junior Watson Program: In these companion events to the Watson Lecture series, groups of up to 10 accomplished students come to campus for an afternoon and evening to meet with admissions counselors, tour the speakers' laboratories, have dinner with members of their research groups at the Athenaeum, and attend the evening talks. Caltech and the Friends of Beckman Auditorium support the program, which is free to the visiting students.
Graduate students Tracy Lu and Alex Ogren led the Garfield High students through Daraio's laboratory and shared what it is like to conduct research alongside her, working each day to invent extraordinary materials such as patches that change shape on cue to send physical signals and metabolic monitors that sense temperatures as exquisitely as plant cells do.
Later, dinner at the Athenaeum provided an opportunity for relaxed and wide-ranging conversation about life and research. "I liked chatting with the students about their hobbies and interests," Alex Ogren said.
Since the 1998–1999 Watson Lectures, when Caltech launched the Junior Watson series, hundreds of high-achieving 10th and 11th graders from around L.A. County have explored cutting-edge research at the Institute as part of the program.
Only about half of the participants have heard of Caltech before their visit and most have never been to campus, says Cara Stemen, who has coordinated the program since its inception. Knowing that there is a top-tier research university near home—and hearing directly from researchers there—encourages young people to consider Caltech and helps them visualize a path to STEM careers.
As part of their visit, the Garfield High students heard from Caltech admissions counselor Andres Diaz, who explained how to apply for admission and offered tips for college readiness.
Juniors Saul Mares and Steven Garcia were impressed by Caltech's 3-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, while junior Leylany Lara was surprised by the fact that there are fewer undergraduates at Caltech than students at Garfield High. And both she and sophomore Giovanni Ramirez commented on Caltech's diversity, the presence of people from all over the country and the world.
Junior Ashley Fernandez was interested to learn that Caltech's entry requirements include a year each of calculus, physics, and chemistry classes, and said that students at Garfield High do not know about those requirements.
Diaz also told the high school visitors that Caltech meets 100 percent of students' demonstrated financial need. Ruth Lam, a junior, said she learned from his presentation that "you shouldn't feel scared of the price tag that's on the website."
How to participate: Going forward, Caltech will quadruple opportunities to participate in the program, increasing the number of Junior Watson programs to one for each Watson Lecture. Lectures are offered monthly during the academic year. Cara Stemen, in Caltech Public Events, works with colleagues in the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach to invite schools. Stemen encourages interested teachers and administrators at local public and private schools to email her.
The Junior Watson program was founded in 1998 by two former staff members who wanted to increase Caltech's visibility among local families. Denise Nelson Nash, who then directed Caltech public events, aimed to attract wider, more diverse audiences. Then-admissions director Charlene Liebau, who sought to inspire more women to consider STEM careers and apply to Caltech, knew the inspirational power of role models and in-person experiences.
Stemen said that faculty speakers consistently agree to participate, volunteering their graduate students' time in part because they benefit from the visits.
"It was great to see the curiosity, wonder, and awe of the Garfield Senior High Students when they visited campus," Tracy Lu said. "It reminds me of how I felt when I first came to Caltech, but now this place is my daily normal life, which is pretty crazy. I enjoyed hearing about the aspirations of the students and what inspires them."
The Garfield High students watched Daraio's lecture attentively. Steven Garcia said he was surprised to learn that when three-dimensional components interlock, they can create different outcomes in a larger shape, opening up bigger possibilities. For example, cloth made of interlocking 3D-printed octahedrons or other shapes can stiffen to absorb impact, a quality that could be applied to make lightweight modern-day chainmail and temporary deployable bridges.
Looking back on the day, Saul Mares and Ruth Lam admired Caltech's facilities for students and researchers. Mares liked that students can use the 3D printing system in Caltech Hall for their projects. Lam noted, "Each department, electrical engineering or mechanical or civil, has its own maker-space, which is geared to the department's specific needs."
Ashley Fernandez added, "I can't wait to tell my friends that there were robots walking on treadmills. I thought that was so cool."