Caltech: High School Students Explore Life as a Seismologist


Pasadena and Alhambra high school sophomores and juniors are delving into earthquake science as part of the Seismological Laboratory’s new Caltech Earthquake Fellows program.

Over their four months in the program, participants experience a compressed version of the research process, posing questions, gathering data with individual seismometers, and collaborating in small groups to analyze and interpret findings. The inaugural group of 11 students will present their research in a lecture hall to their mentors, friends, and families on September 17.

Offered in partnership with the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, the Caltech Earthquake Fellows program works to strengthen ties between Caltech and surrounding communities and to encourage students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, to pursue scientific careers.

“We are grateful for the robust partnership that [the Pasadena Unified School District] has with Caltech,” says Dr. Jodi Marchesso, principal of Sierra Madre Elementary School and the district’s former STEM specialist. “Because of this partnership, our students have the opportunity to contribute to research that has an impact on science. It is experiences like this that create a connection between classroom learning and the world around us.”

The Caltech Earthquake Fellows experience
The fellowships offer a one-month immersion in seismology on Caltech’s campus in the summer, flanked by Saturday sessions in spring and fall.

During their month at Caltech, students toured the Seismological Laboratory and the wider campus; attended talks by experts in geophysics, seismology, and disaster preparedness; learned about college and scientific careers; conducted research; and built coding and data visualization skills useful in several fields of study. After finishing the program, participants will keep their laptops and seismometers and receive a $1,000 stipend.

Reflections from a mentor
Graduate student Jimmy Atterholt says he learned vital lessons by contributing to the program’s seismology curriculum and mentoring students as they conducted original research, several of whom did so for the first time. He values practice in describing concepts at the high-school level, explaining that while seismology is an upper-level college course, people who become seismologists are often called on to talk publicly about earthquakes.

Atterholt said the opportunity to contribute means a lot to him personally.

“In STEM, there is a high concentration of people who come from families full of people with scientific backgrounds. I don’t come from one of these families, and I understand what a disadvantage that can be,” he says. “I think it’s good to have outreach programs to bring students who don’t grow up in that environment into the fold and encourage them to do STEM.”

“There were a few students that might not have thought of themselves as being on a scientific trajectory,” he says. “Through this program they learned that science may be a career path for them, and that it is attainable.”

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