HomeBlocksFront-TopSMHS Students Study STEM at Caltech

SMHS Students Study STEM at Caltech

Twenty-six SMHS students split their class time between the California Institute of Technology, which is famous for both Albert Einstein and the Big Bang Theory, to study what is known in educational lexicon as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

High school science teacher Keiko Hiranaka has overseen the STEM research class since its inception in 2018.

The class meets daily at SMHS during fifth period, but every other Thursday, they board a bus to Caltech’s Pasadena campus, where the students are set free on an academic bonanza.

“There are some groups, Material Science in particular, who will go into Caltech an additional two times outside of school hours to meet with their mentors and do lab work,” said Hiranaka.

Though the academic offerings at San Marino High School are substantial on their own merits, two entries on the syllabus go above and beyond the typical experience by any standards.

J.T. Liao, Nora Chang and Leo Ke traverse the Caltech campus on their way to the STEM research class.

In 2016, SMHS rolled out its Honors Humanities Seminar in a partnership with the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, which allowed students to travel across town to study in the idyllic setting. The conglomeration earned the SMUSD a prestigious Golden Bell Award in the category of “Community Schools through Partnerships and Collaboration” for high schools. Golden Bell Awards recognize outstanding programs and governance practices of school boards in school districts and county offices of education throughout California.

Dovetailing off this award-winning partnership with the Huntington, SMHS kicked off the 2018-19 school year by offering the Caltech STEM research class in collaboration with the esteemed California Institute of Technology.

Although the class currently has 26 members, Hiranaka said the number will go down to 20, for the 2022-23 school year.

“There is a written application that includes a technical question geared towards the research group the students are interested in, which in the past have been Material Science, Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Applied Mathematics and Computer Science,” said Hiranaka, who is also an adviser for SMHS’ award-winning robotics team.

“Next year we will be offering groups in Material Science, Inorganic Chemistry and Applied Mathematics based on the availability of the Caltech professors. Then students go through an interview process — both here at SMHS with me, any administrator or counselor who is available or willing to participate. This year we had a few students currently in the STEM class sit in on interviews to help evaluate the applicants.

“We have accepted around 50% of the applicants each year,” she said.

Caltech professors involved in the class include Julia Greer, a San Marino resident famous for frequent forays through town on her trademark roller skates. No matter who is at the helm, it’s a big hit with students.

“The Caltech class, in my opinion, is the most opportunistic and collegiate course on campus,” said J.T. Liao, a junior. “This is an amazing way for students interested in STEM to gain exposure to state-of-the-art equipment that Caltech has to offer. The main importance of courses like the Caltech class is the ability it gives students to temporarily pursue an interest in order to answer the question, ‘Is this major right for me?’ This course exemplifies what San Marino is truly about: Opportunity. Although our visits to the campus were limited as a result of the pandemic, the perspective I now have of STEM and research as a whole is unparalleled to the outlook I had on science at the start of the year. In a positive way, of course.”

Christine Tran                   

Students train in actual laboratories, which are rife with safety equipment and educational materials, with professors and graduate students.

“I enjoy Caltech STEM class because it is a valuable opportunity for us, as high school students, to get lab experience and learn about the scientific research process,” said Camdyn Wu, a senior.

Hiranaka weighed in on the class,

“The Caltech STEM research course is for self-motivated and dedicated students to work and explore graduate level topics and gain experience in collegiate labs,” she said.

“I thoroughly enjoy giving this opportunity to students at San Marino High School. Coming from a STEM background myself, I remember how overwhelmed I was when I read my first technical paper in college. This class allows me to give students the chance to read and dig into technical papers alongside their peers and mentors who are able to guide and help the students understand how such a paper should be read. I hope that this class gives the students confidence to pursue their goals after they graduate.”

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