Allison Y. Wang
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has everything you would expect from a university – research opportunities, a broad range of courses and many student clubs. What I love most about Caltech, though, is the feeling of trust and community that arises from the unique intensity of the academic system and the honour system that applies inside and outside the classroom.
Each academic year at Caltech consists of three quarters, or terms, of 11 weeks each.
One of the cornerstones of Caltech’s academic system is the core curriculum: three quarters of maths and physics, two quarters of chemistry, one quarter of biology, two lab courses, one course in another area of science, one course in scientific communication, three physical education courses, and 12 courses in the humanities and social sciences (HSS).
We typically take four or five courses per quarter, finishing most of the STEM portion of the core curriculum during our first year and sprinkling the rest between major-specific courses over the remainder of our Caltech career.
Perhaps it seems incongruous that a university focused on STEM requires undergraduates to take an average of one HSS course per term, but these classes aim to ensure that we can communicate our scientific work effectively. Even with the large number of core classes, there is sufficient time to take extra classes within our majors. The core curriculum does not restrict us; it gives us a foundation for later classes and allows us time to adjust to the structure of Caltech. It also has benefits outside of academics: freshmen form study groups for core courses that can transform into social groups.
Collaboration is a common feature of almost every class – after all, most scientific research is performed collaboratively. Caltech’s honour system guarantees that this collaboration occurs within acceptable boundaries and does not blur into copying or plagiarism.
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The honour system is based on the honour code, a single sentence that underlies all interactions at Caltech: “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” This idea is what makes Caltech special to me. The honour code enables trust not only between students but also between students and faculty. We are responsible for upholding the honour system, but in return we are trusted with privileges such as take-home exams.
The honour code applies in our non-academic lives as well. For example, I feel safe leaving items in common areas while going to find a book or grab a snack. Enforcement of the honour system relies on students, in collaboration with administration. Students lead investigations of alleged honour code violations, academic or non-academic, and make recommendations to the dean to nullify the unfair advantage gained and protect the Caltech community when a violation occurs.
From my experience serving on the board of control, the committee that handles academic honour system violations, Caltech students consider every recommendation carefully and fairly. The result is an honour code that strengthens the community in both academic and non-academic settings.
The environment of trust between students is exemplified by Caltech’s house system. At the beginning of every academic year, freshmen visit each undergraduate house during a period called “rotation”. Based on their fit with the houses and their personal preference – each house has a different personality – each freshman becomes a member of a house at the end of this process (unless they opt out, which is also permitted).
From dinner traditions to social events, houses provide a way for new and older students to interact, and students often find their primary social circles within their houses. One notable tradition is “ditch day” – each year, seniors in each house plan a day of fun for first-years, which might include puzzles, games or activities such as abseiling down a building. House culture is certainly not the only element of social life at Caltech, but it plays a major role in the undergraduate experience.
Overall, Caltech is a uniquely difficult but wonderful place to study. As I enter my final year, I am grateful for the academic experiences and community that Caltech provides.