The California Institute of Technology has never been a by-the-book kind of school. Its students thrive on big challenges, such as investigative research projects that they help design. So it’s not surprising that the university, a long-time HHMI grant recipient, will use part of a new $1.6 million grant to further empower its students in the classroom and the lab.
Caltech believes that its students can benefit by learning from—and teaching—their peers, says David Tirrell, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering. So part of its new HHMI funding will expand a program that allows undergraduates to teach, a rare opportunity at a top research university. The program places undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) in several chemistry labs, and students, TAs, and faculty all call the project a success. Undergraduate TAs bring recent experience with the challenges faced by their students, unlike instructors and graduate student TAs, who learned the material years or decades ago.
“Undergrads at Caltech are so strong academically that, once they’ve been through a course and learned a subject, they’re usually very good at teaching their younger colleagues how to think about science and how to work in the lab,” Tirrell says.
Caltech students will also get the opportunity to do advanced research that is out of the reach of many undergraduates. In a biomolecular engineering course, student teams design their own experiments—for instance, building a strain of bacteria that can be prompted to wipe itself out after performing some useful task. With its new grant, Caltech will provide the class a fluorescence-activated cell sorter, which isolates those cells that demonstrate a specific, desirable feature. This expensive piece of equipment is often unavailable to scientists until they’re pursuing a Ph.D., but the new one will be located in a teaching lab and dedicated primarily to undergraduate use.
Tirrell believes that with a machine like this at their disposal, students will be prompted to think more deeply about the science involved and carry out research that answers questions they pose themselves. “Our undergraduates will develop a sense of self-confidence that comes from knowing that they're using the same tools and approaches that are used in the best research laboratories around the world.”