Frank Capra (BS 1918), the filmmaker behind It's a Wonderful Life and a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus, said that college "changed his whole viewpoint," making him a cultured person. In perhaps a more pensive moment, he wrote to then Caltech President James Scherer, "For the last couple years I have been deceiving myself and others into believing that I would make a good engineer or chemist. … I believe the things that I'm temperamentally fit for are music, drama, or dealing with humans such as is offered by diplomatic service."
Today, Caltech students, faculty, and staff members are encouraged to see that science, engineering, and "dealing with humans" go together as engaging and mutually beneficial pursuits. Opportunities to share knowledge, skills, and resources are important Caltech experiences.
Beyond acts of community service, such as Caltech students preparing monthly meals at Pasadena's Union Station Homeless Services Adult Center, many people on campus apply their passion for STEM to benefit other Southern Californians. In the spirit of Capra's holiday classic, here are some of the ways, big and small, that the Caltech community made an impact on other people's lives in 2023:
Sharing discoveries and innovations
Caltech Astro Outreach volunteers spread the joy of science throughout Pasadena and LA, setting up telescopes on sidewalks and talking astrophysics on trains and at pubs. They drew crowds to campus for stargazing lectures and viewings of the green comet and an eclipse. Meanwhile, regulars at Odyssey Games learned battery chemistry as they played Dungeons & Dragons thanks to graduate student Skyler Ware. The Watson Lectures brought cutting-edge science and engineering to Southern Californians. The 101-year-old series newly features preshow activities where students, postdoctoral scholars, and community collaborators talk with visitors and lead interactive demonstrations relevant to the lectures.
Opening paths to college and careers in STEM fields
Caltech graduate students designed and taught the biotech track as part of a Pasadena City College (PCC) summer program for local college-bound students. Postdoctoral scholars and staff taught a Warrior-Scholar Project STEM bootcamp for veterans and active-duty military members organized by a Caltech staff member. A Caltech graduate student and PCC alum conceived training in chemistry research techniques for PCC students (participants pictured above), aiming to encourage more graduate training in STEM among historically excluded students. The Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech organized an interdisciplinary conference for emerging Black academics in STEM from across Southern California.
Faculty, students, and staff researched and led efforts to catalyze greater equity through Caltech's undergraduate admissions application and its recruitment of prospective students from small-town and rural communities and from across California—particularly those whose families are impoverished or have not had college experiences.
Inspiring young students to love learning
Young Southern Californians made formative connections to science, engineering, and math through the efforts of members of the Caltech community. Researchers led activities at the school district–wide PUSD Science Fest and at schools through Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach. Schoolchildren discovered local geology through classroom visits and field trips with Caltech students. Families came to campus for the Science Olympiad and enjoyed Caltech science demonstrations at the City of STEM and Los Angeles Maker Faire.
Caltech professors and their research group members opened their laboratories to accomplished Southern California high school students through the Junior Watson series and the Summer Research Connection and its hybrid counterpart. Postdoctoral scholars and graduate students shared their discoveries and their personal stories with middle and high school students through Science Journeys presentations. They also organized an ongoing effort to give retired laboratory equipment to high schools that could not otherwise buy these supplies.
In 2023, 170 undergraduate and graduate students in the Caltech Y's Rise program tutored local eighth- to 12th-grade students who want to gain STEM proficiency. Rise expanded to offer a summer experience for children in third through sixth grade.
Engaging to address public concerns
Researchers and staff continued to build the Caltech Science Exchange as a resource for fact-driven conversations on current topics in science and technology by adding a section on AI. Caltech experts also debunked movie myths at the popular event "Sci-Fi to Sci-Fact."
In broader civic service, Caltech established the Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy, which hosted its first conference to accelerate understanding of conspiratorial thinking. Caltech professors co-chaired and served on the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and advised on methods to modernize wildland firefighting and to help Americans prepare for and mitigate extreme weather events. Locally, Caltech staff member Patrick Cahalan provided his eighth (and second-to-last) year of service on the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education.