Summer program

The Community Science Academy ran a pilot program in the summer of 2013 with students and teachers from John Muir High School. In the school, students grow food in a 2 acre plot of land on school grounds set aside as a garden — “Muir Ranch”. Administrators and teachers at the high school wanted to develop with Caltech a STEM program tying hands-on agricultural work to engineering and concepts from physics, chemistry, and biology.

Students performed experiments in soil and water quality testing, pest control, and plant processing, in the process learning about topics such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in the soil cycle; colors, absorbance, and Beer’s Law; linear regression and standard curves; geometric optics, the thin lens equation, and microscopy; fruit fly genetics; and steam distillation and extraction of pure compounds from plants.

They made use of a collaborative learning app called SKIES, which let students and teachers make questions and informational cards in a shared setting; open-source scientific instrumentation provided by a local company ioRodeo; and Caltech labs and facilities in cooperation with Long Cai (Professor of Chemistry), Bruce Hay (Professor of Biology), and Jeff Mendez (Director of Undergraduate Chemistry Labs). Additional support was provided by the Provost’s Innovation in Education Fund at Caltech, and the Caltech Classroom Connection program.

In a typical session, the instructors would give a brief lecture (3 or 4 cards) on the topic of interest:


Students would then become teachers for each other, breaking into groups and making flash cards based on the material that had just been covered:

Making questions

We would follow up immediately with an in-class lab activity. Students and teachers would post their results for everyone to see.

Lab activity

We concluded by discussing the results they had just obtained, and drawing conclusions:

Results and discussion

Students enjoyed lab tours around Caltech as well:

Lab tours

A presentation about the program:

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