Caltech Connected: How Frosh are Being Supported During Remote Learning

This year's incoming students adjust to Caltech's workload

By Alice Cheng | Published 10/27/2020

The freshman experience at Caltech is designed to acquaint students with the rigor, collaboration, and problem-solving that Caltech is known for providing. However, the realities of remote learning have drastically changed how this is occurring for the Class of 2024.

For most first-term Freshmen (affectionately known as frosh) at Caltech, a typical schedule consists of Ma 1a, Ch 1a, and Ph 1a, courses designed to give students an introduction to their respective subjects, in addition to a freshman-level humanities course. Despite taking these courses from the comfort (or confinement) of their own bedrooms, the core curriculum is just as rigorous as ever.

The challenge of the transition to college-level academics isn’t the only one for this year’s frosh. The class of 2024 must undertake this difficult transition over a virtual medium. While Discord, Zoom and virtual whiteboards have facilitated collaboration and become staples of the freshman experience, many frosh have expressed that in-person collaboration would be much easier and more efficient.

Luckily, there are a multitude of resources available for frosh to ease their transition to Caltech’s rigorous academics while learning remotely. The deans’ office and the Office of Residential Experience formed extended Living-Learning Groups, in a similar format to orientation groups in previous years. Each group is designated an RA and two upperclassmen counselors to provide a support network in place of the in-person house system.

LLGs (Living/Learning Groups) have proven to be useful for some, such as freshman Lynn Yang. According to Yang, the presence of LLGs facilitated the process of finding not only “people who I can collaborate with… [but] also helped me find genuine friends.”

One tremendous benefit of LLGs is that frosh are automatically connected with upperclassmen who volunteer to lead these groups. Yang claims that they are helpful with both the academic side of things, as well as giving general advice such as “adjusting to the workload, expectations, and how to balance out our schedules.” Despite the multitude of roadblocks imposed on collaboration and transitioning into college in general created by remote learning, LLGs have helped many frosh like Yang transition more easily into college academics and the Caltech community.

In addition to LLGs, students have access to TAs as well as upperclassmen Deans’ Tutors who have taken the course during their undergraduate career and can offer their advice and knowledge to current frosh. Getting a Deans’ Tutor is simple; frosh can view a list of available tutors on the Deans’ page and contact the tutors to set up a time to discuss and review concepts. Each course also has regular TAs, who are typically graduate students in the field or upperclassmen who have performed well in the course in previous years. TAs have designated office hours on Zoom that students can attend, whether it’s to clarify a concept from lecture, go over a homework problem, or to give feedback about the course.

In fact, even a few fellow frosh have devoted some time to helping their classmates. Out of the fall term core courses, Ma 1a seems to be one of the most challenging. After the Discord server that frosh use for collaboration was flooded with questions about the formal definition of a limit, Sasha Tolstoff (‘24) wrote up a thorough explanation of the basics of limits of sequences, complete with examples of the basic definitions and theorems covered in that week’s lectures.

When asked why she took the initiative to write such a thorough explanation of the material despite her busy schedule, Tolstoff told of her passion for the Feynman technique, “a concept which suggests that the simpler you can explain something, the better you can come to understand it yourself.” For Tolstoff, this is not only a way to improve her own understanding of concepts, but also a way to bring others towards that goal while “contributing to the development and growth of others,” something she believes is important in these trying times. As she states, this is “what makes Caltech special and it is what makes the aura of STEM itself so powerful.”

Yang and many other students agree that combined with the regular lectures and recitation sections, Tolstoff’s notes have helped solidify concepts in their mind and make them more confident about the material.

The support frosh have received during these trying times are indicative of the collaborative tendencies and nature of Caltech. Teaching assistants, professors, upperclassmen, and even their own classmates are almost always willing to help at any time. While students won’t be able to walk into a house lounge and find someone to work with, instead they are staying connected through Discord and Zoom and can easily find peers to collaborate with in the various voice channels. Techers may be scattered all over the world, but help is often just one click away.

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