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LEAPing into Action

“Research shows that access to science equipment varies by school district, and those with a majority of underrepresented students often get the short shrift. How many future scientists are we missing because of this?” Peiwei Chen, Former LEAP President


A Caltech Y initiative that provides public school science teachers with laboratory equipment is seeking donations from the campus community. From now until the end of fall term, the Lab Equipment Access Program (LEAP) is accepting used items such as hot plates, micropipettes, and pH meters.


Contributions from this term’s equipment drive will support Van Nuys and SOAR High School, Title 1 institutions that serve low-income communities. Van Nuys Science teacher, Dana Hung, wants to add a biotechnology class to the school’s science, technology, and mathematics magnet program. To do so, Hung first needs some essential tools, says Cai Tong Ng, copresident of LEAP and a Caltech biochemistry graduate student.


Helping students from underfunded schools receive the same learning opportunities as their more economically advantaged peers is at the heart of LEAP’s founding mission. Peiwei Chen established LEAP after a discussion with Caltech student Suchitra Dara, whom he mentored for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Dara was a standout science student in middle and high school—she even competed in the California State Science Fair—but her Bakersfield high school had a limited budget. Oftentimes, they supplied students with broken science tools or none at all.


From left to right: LEAP members: Cai Tong Ng, Jesus Galeana, Peiwei Chen, and LEAP donor, Bob Bell.


“It’s not OK for 40 kids to share just a few functional Bunsen burners,” says Chen, who adds that learning about science from a textbook without doing hands-on activities is a disservice to students. “At Caltech, we are so privileged to do cutting-edge research. Yet, just two hours away, schools don’t have the funding to do some basic experiments.”

In early 2022, Chen, Ng, Dara, and their friends sent emails, visited labs, and posted flyers around campus asking for donations. The response surpassed their expectations. By April, LEAP received 302 pieces of lab equipment, computer monitors, and keyboards and drove them to Dara’s alma mater. Subsequent equipment drives have supported high schools and community colleges in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural hub between Bakersfield and Sacramento.


By helping to close the equity gap one California school at a time, Chen hopes to broaden the pipeline of scientists and engineers.


“Research shows that access to science equipment varies by school district, and those with a majority of underrepresented students often get the short shrift,” Chen says. “How many future scientists are we missing because of this?”


The Caltech Y and LEAP are also accepting cash donations from campus community members and local businesses. To schedule an equipment pickup or view the full wish list, visit the LEAP website.


The LEAP Project is partially supported by the Harris-Bacor Family Foundation.

LEAP members giving a science demo to 5th graders from Suva Elementary School.


WRITTEN BY Marisa Demers


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