College Cousins: CalTech & MIT

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Two of our country’s most respected institutions of higher learning are familiarly known to us as CalTech (California Institute of Technology) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Both, as their names suggest, have a major focus on all things relating to science and technology – although that isn’t to say that students can’t pursue excellent courses of study in other fields. A case in point is CalTech’s academic division of Humanities and Social Sciences, although its other divisions are all unabashedly science related: Biology & Biological Engineering, Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, Engineering & Applied Science, Geological & Planetary Sciences, and Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. It’s much the same story at MIT, whose line-up includes the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and its highly regarded Sloan School of Management. Its other Schools are its School of Architecture and Planning, School of Engineering, and School of Science.

We know these universities as world famous and tops in their fields, but both had long struggles to achieve their present status. Both opened their doors in the last half of the 19th century, during a period of time we refer to as the Second Industrial Revolution, years that created a growing need for trained scientists and engineers. As private institutions, however, they didn’t receive state government funding, and in their early years, that made keeping the doors open a real challenge for both. It wasn’t until the world wars of the 20th century produced an unending need for scientists and engineers that these schools found the solid footing that positioned them for the longstanding success they enjoy today.

The academics are rigorous, but the elite students at these institutions benefit from being surrounded by peers who are equally accomplished. They also are supported – and challenged – by access to faculty. Both schools offer an impressive 3:1 student to faculty ratio. It’s no surprise then that both produce some pretty amazing scientists and engineers – and their alumni have the awards and credentials to back up that claim. For MIT alumni and faculty: 89 Nobel laureates, 58 National Medal of Science winners, 29 National Medal of Technology and Innovation awardees, 48 MacArthur Fellows, and 15 A.M. Turing award winners. CalTech’s tally is also impressive: 37 Nobel laureates, 58 National Medal of Science winners, 13 National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipients. 

We applaud those individuals but must give tribute even more to the contributions to society represented by those awards. Research is a priority at both of these illustrious institutions. The breadth of MIT’s involvement is reflected in The MIT Energy Initiative, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, just to name a few.  CalTech is heavily involved in our country’s space program, principally through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which CalTech founded in the 1930s and still manages to this day. The CalTech Seismological Laboratory is world renowned for its work in the field of geophysical research, and it owns and operates no fewer than six astronomical observatories. 

Students contribute to these and other endeavors while learning the research ropes. MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is the principal gateway used by 85% of MIT undergrads in finding positions in faculty-led research projects. CalTech’s counterpart is its Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), in which students can work under the guidance and direction of faculty on research projects. During the academic year, students also can sign up for research projects either for credit or pay, and they cap their undergraduate years with a senior thesis that involves original research.

Given the expansive reach and degree of success of these two schools, you might be surprised to learn how small they are. MIT’s undergrad population is about 4,500 and CalTech’s just under 1,000. As you would expect, students at both are academically strong, and admitted students at both have top tier grades and test scores. It’s not easy to be a standout at either of these schools so it’s easy to feel a competitive spirit. Even so, there are plenty of outlets for socialization, both on and off campus. MIT is located in Cambridge, within a few miles of half a dozen other Cambridge and Boston university campuses. CalTech is located in Pasadena, where students can balance the intense demands of study with a laid-back California lifestyle.

These two schools on opposite coasts are separated by 3,000 miles but share a focus and mission. We can be sure that among the students who are passing through their doors today are the notable award winners of tomorrow.