Caltech’s Core Problem

Caltech’s Core Problem

(You’re not ignorant, the system is)

Jessie Gan | Opinion

The class that plagued me the most during last Fall term was Ch 21a, Physical Chemistry, which is an introduction to Quantum Mechanics for chemistry-related majors. My freshman and sophomore years were honestly pretty rough, but these were all supposed to build my skills as a science student here. As a Junior, I was hoping to excel in courses directly related to my major. You can then imagine my disappointment, albeit not surprise, when I felt barred from success last term due not to a lack of chemistry knowledge, but from the unstable foundation of the Caltech Core.

My frustration was primarily with the obvious hurdle that I had to clear: math ability. I was not well prepared for this class, given that the Chemistry major does not require any Math or Applied/Computational Math classes beyond Ma 2 (Differential Equations). I found that it was significantly more difficult to be successful in Ch 21a due to my poor foundation in Linear Algebra and Multivariable Calculus, which should have been fulfilled by Ma 1b and Ma 1c, respectively. I continued to struggle in essential concepts, such as the rules of vector spaces and how to integrate over spherical coordinates. However, these are fundamental disciplines taught in the Core that every Caltech student is expected to be well-equipped with.

I could not be more frustrated that the reason I was limited in the class was not because I didn’t understand Physics or Chemistry. Rather, it was because I lacked the math background that I was already supposed to have. Why did I still seem to be failing compared to my peers? Why hadn’t I learned the prerequisite foundation critical for these classes? To see how we got here, we have to go to the beginning: freshman year.

Core at Caltech is defined as the set of freshman year classes meant to build the fundamental, scientific background for success as a scientist or engineer. It typically includes a whole year of Physics and Math, two terms of Chemistry, and a term of Biology, along with a breadth class, freshman labs and more (the full requirements are listed on the Registrar’s Office website). The key is that Core is meant to help us succeed in our classes after the freshman year, regardless of our high school background.

Known jokingly as the “great equalizer” by some undergraduates, Core is supposed to make us all equally prepared to run headfirst into our major of study. It even provides a safety net in the form of Pass/Fail, so that we don’t even have grades for the first two terms of our freshman year. However, even in the perceived flexibility of the freshman year, Core is often still a source of stress and isolation. After all, contrary to how it is promoted in Undergraduate Admissions, Core is where the division between students of diverse backgrounds becomes most apparent.

What did you take away the most from the Core? Can those of you who are sophomores, juniors, and seniors look back and say that Core has made you a better scientist, as suggested in the Undergraduate Admissions page on the Core Curriculum? Perhaps only if you had seen it all before.

When I was a first-term frosh, I was blown away by how stupid I was. I walked out of my first Math 1a class in frustration, the second in tears. And it didn’t get better. I found the lectures pedantic and completely unintuitive to a student learning the material for the first time. Things were just too far out of reach for me to understand. I knew there would be a jump from high school, but it was like learning to scale a cliff when it seemed that most people were already halfway up, not to mention decent at climbing.

I’m not just talking about the usual barriers that frosh often experience. Retrospectively, I was seriously struggling more than some of the people I surrounded myself with, constantly comparing my days of relentless effort with my friends’ mere hours before deadlines to complete problem sets. Even though I was worried about it before committing, I never really questioned until that moment if I really deserved to be here.

I finished frosh year (only failed one class on Pass/Fail!) after trying and failing to become the student I was told I would be in the Spring term. I told myself it would get better next year. And indeed, making new friends, moving to a new house, and taking classes that were actually at the right difficulty for my background were all integral to opening my eyes to what a disaster my frosh year was.

All this was important for me realizing that, indeed, people actually have different backgrounds. When I was a frosh, I would spin this delusional narrative that went something like: “it doesn’t matter that this person took classes at community college/ participated in International Baccalaureate/ went to a magnet school/ had multivariable calculus available at their high school/ insert obscure background fact of your choice. I was told that the Core brings everyone to the same level of math and science, so I guess I’m just not as good as everyone else.”

What I was logically missing was that the Core could not be an equalizer if it treated everyone the same.

When I was in high school, the highest math class available was AP Calculus BC, and I was the only person left in it by the end of my senior year during the pandemic. How was I supposed to pick up linear algebra as fast as people who’ve already taken it? Not only that, but at such a fast pace and lack of clear teaching? It was the first time in my life that I realized that no matter how much work I put in, I couldn’t make it all work out. I couldn’t focus on building my math background and playing catch-up with everyone else while also completing assignments on time for Ch 3a and passing my Bi 8 class. Sacrifice had to be made, and the easy one to make was giving up any thorough understanding of topics I hadn’t already seen before.

Caltech’s Core is not made for everyone, contrary to how it is advertised. Stated on the Undergraduate Admissions Website, Core is meant to be a “critical and intentional part of your education.” I do see the critical part, but intentional? What is intentional about forcing students into a curriculum that can be unattainable, and ultimately, inequitable? That to me, just seems lazy.

Deceived that I would soon become the student that breezed through math-heavy courses, I committed to Caltech in June 2020 over many other schools that would have at least offered classes that were at the right skill level for my growth. I committed here partly because of good research fit, but also because I was under the impression that the Core and the Caltech curriculum would give me a robust, broad background in the science subjects essential for success.

I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way given the diversity of backgrounds we have. It’s no secret that Undergraduate Admissions is trying to recruit more diverse students than ever before. Considering the testing moratorium until 2025, we are actively trying to give more opportunities to students who may not have access to higher level courses. Now, I’m not trying to argue that the ACT and SAT are necessarily the best thing. However, I do want to point out that high achieving, wealthy students perform significantly better on standardized testing than low income, underrepresented students. These students are much less likely to have access to linear algebra and multivariable calculus and organic chemistry, and therefore, Caltech is quickly gaining a higher representation of students with backgrounds that are just not compatible with the Core.

The Core, the “great equalizer,” is not a one-size-fits-all that matches that perfect level for all Caltech students. While we have some measures to address various needs, ranging from Ma 1d to further support students who haven’t learned series, to placement tests for students who already have the background, these do not necessarily support students effectively. Specifically for supplemental classes, there was already a stigma associated with them when I was taking my placement tests in Summer of 2021, further increasing the divide between those with higher math background, and those without.

There is a difference between equality and equity. Caltech currently employs equality: everyone takes the same Core classes, and consequently receives the same level of resources. But considering the abysmal learning experience I and others have had, what Caltech may really need is equity: every person has a different background and therefore may need a different amount of resources or learning to reach the same goal.

Considering the average knowledge of a high achieving high school student before coming to Caltech, the minimum knowledge we require for admission eligibility is one year of calculus, one year of chemistry, and one year of physics. Let’s be realistic here. One year of calculus is a far cry from what is necessary to deeply learn and succeed in Math 1a, much less in Math 1b or c which don’t even build on Math 1a. While there may be no perfect solution here, I think the right place to start is by making Core more accessible to students with the bare minimum of application requirements. Students who exceed these requirements are free to test into harder classes if need be.

Some of you who will read this will probably say that nothing needs to change because the Core is what makes Caltech a pillar of excellence. If you had a good time in Core, learned a lot, then that’s great, because it was the right level for you. But I personally am not just interested in just being hazed and humbled. I came here to actually learn and build the scientific foundation I was promised.

In this article, I speak from my personal experiences, but I acknowledge that Caltech admits students from a wide diversity of backgrounds. Not everyone will relate to this, and that’s actually great given that I described a disappointing experience. But I didn’t just write this to rant; I hope to create more dialogue about how Caltech can be better for undergraduates from diverse backgrounds.

First and foremost, to frosh (and anyone else who needs to hear it): You are not stupid! Just because your background or affinity for a subject is at a lower level than others at Caltech,it does not mean that you are inherently worse at learning than everyone else around you. Every person at Caltech is capable of knowledge and success and the difficulty of Core highly depends on your prior background. It took me until my Junior year to finally get over this fact, and sometimes I’m still not really over it.

Some may say that changing Core results in “dumbing down” or “lowering the bar.” For anyone who thinks that Caltech students will lose competency if we make Core more accessible and less proof-based, we already are. I’m a prime example of that. But instead of lowering the bar in content, we are lowering the bar to pass the classes. Considering how much I struggled with linear algebra in Ch 21a, did I really deserve to pass Ma1b with what little knowledge that I retained? Perhaps not, but I still did, because that is how low the bar was to pass. I would rather take a class where the content is easier and students are getting higher grades, than a class that is inaccessible and the pass line is lower because students don’t understand the material.

For the Admissions Office, you are admitting students that don’t have the same background as previously admitted students, and hopefully studying these effects on their success at Caltech. Will you implore the faculty to reconsider a curriculum that will support the students that you have admitted? Considering the faculty petition discussed in another article in this Tech issue, they have seen the effect of the testing moratorium on us and decided that the solution is to change our admissions requirements. Is it our admissions requirements that have to change, or is it the way we teach the new generation of students?

Caltech has been an institute characterized by STEM excellence and cutting-edge research for decades. We have cultivated students that have gone on to innovate and change the world, and who have become top-quality scientists in part due to the rigorous and robust scientific education here. I hope that Caltech will be able to promise this fundamental education to all students who commit here, and not just those who have been better prepared by their circumstances.