• A student with a mask on presenting next to a screen

      Amber Wang-presenting on their group’s exoplanet during this summer’s Caltech Planet Finder Academy (Photo – Scott Phelps)

      I met Amber Wang this past summer, when she was a participant in Caltech’s Planet Finder Academy with 26 other PUSD high schoolers.

      By Scott Phelps

      I noticed her seriousness and focus, and she and her friends were typically doing well during the activities. When I asked the group to take the telescopes that they built in one of the sessions and observe and draw the moon, she came back with a detailed drawing she had done with the family’s much larger telescope. When I interviewed her with her mom and sister just last week, she mentioned how the Pasadena High School astronomy club was a highlight of her time at PHS. During the summer week I heard from Caltech staff about her sister Sylvia who also had attended PHS and who had participated in Caltech’s Summer Research Connection for two summers and how outstanding she was.  I learned that Sylvia is now a student at Caltech, and their mother is a Caltech staff scientist.

      I met Amber and Sylvia’s mother Dr. Wen Chen during the Academy group’s field trip to the Mt SAC Planetarium and Observatory in November. In talking with her, I was struck by the unusual nature of her perspective about PUSD. She recalled that when her kids were reaching school age, all of her friends had told her to place them in Arcadia schools as the students there were much better. She didn’t favor that idea as she knew that the amount of ethnic diversity there wasn’t high. She also felt that the parental role in student success was very important.

      With this knowledge of Dr. Chen’s relatively rare perspective, I asked them if I could interview them about their PUSD experience. Before the interview, Dr. Chen sent me Sylvia’s college essay wherein she wrote about her mother and father starting the traditional Chinese meditation practice of Falun Gong when they came to the US for grad school in the 1990’s, and her mother’s subsequent role as a prominent activist against China’s brutal persecution of her fellow practitioners. Sylvia also wrote about doing her own part, doing school projects about the Tiananmen Massacre and the Cultural Revolution, performing the Chinese lute (the pipa), being interviewed by the media and writing letters to those imprisoned by China for their beliefs. She wrote that this was the most rewarding experience of her upbringing, and that she was extremely fortunate to have been born in the U. S., where she can cherish freedom and the ability to speak out for those who cannot. I sat down with them last week at Caltech.

      A mother and two daughters taking selfie

      (L-R) Wen Chen (mom), Amber-Wang (PHS senior) and Sylvia Wang (PHS grad, now Caltech student) (Photo – Sylvia Wang)

      Mother’s history

      Dr. Chen’s parents survived the Cultural Revolution. She had a very interesting experience in high school. Her parents told her not to be top kid as she would be a target. They sent her to a “bad” high school close to home where they knew people would protect her. They had gang fights daily in her school. She was always interested in astronomy though. Her father and her older brother built her a telescope, and she was always interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Her parents supported her to study on her own, and she won a national prize at age 16. She thus went to a prestigious university in China and then came to the US.

      Learning languages

      Sylvia and Amber had attended Norma Coombs Elementary School and Sierra Madre Elementary and then Sierra Madre Middle School for PUSD’s Mandarin Dual Language Immersion Program (DLIP). At Pasadena High School, Sylvia took AP Chinese and lots of other AP classes. Sylvia and Amber have been home-taught Chinese every day since they were very young, taking turns reading in Chinese until even today. Both daughters were communicating in Chinese at home until they went to school. They became ESL students in elementary school in PUSD. Then when Amber became English proficient, she forgot her Mandarin so they had to re-teach her. Sylvia was able to jump into the DLIP classes at Sierra Madre MS because of her training at home.

      Time at Norma Coombs

      Sylvia still talks to former students and staff from Norma Coombs, and remembers becoming interested in drawing maps and their precision and how much she really liked it. She is now an Electrical Engineering major at Caltech which requires lots of precision. They both remembered the famous kiln there and doing ceramics as their favorite thing. Sylvia said it was a privilege to do that. Amber remembered having an interest in astronomy as early as first grade. Dr. Chen got her a telescope at age 8, an Orion 8″ scope, but she and Sylvia weren’t that interested until they went to PHS and were in the astronomy club.

      Students in a lab

      Amber Wang (standing) observing spectra this summer during the Caltech Planet Finder Academy (Photo – Scott Phelps)

      Pasadena HS

      Sylvia started PHS in 10th grade and took AP European History. In her junior and senior years, she took six AP courses a year. Amber took AP Human Geography in 9th grade. She took PE in 9th grade and then the second required year in the next two summers through a charter school. She wished she would have taken AP Chinese in 9th grade so she could have taken more APs in the higher grades. One reason she wanted to have taken more APs was to get her GPA as high as it could be using the extra grade point that can be earned in an AP class. That said, she did take 3 in 10th grade, 6 in 11th and is taking 4 in 12th grade. She is also taking two PCC classes that are mostly online, English and Political Science, the latter which meets the US Government high school graduation requirement. She is still missing an Economics credit so she will likely join that class in January.

      Sylvia didn’t take PCC classes while in high school but did spend two summers doing internships through Caltech’s Summer Research Connection. She was in Caltech’s astronomy department, and she really learned a lot. She learned how to code in Python on her own. She had learned how to code in JavaScript and HTML in the Web Design class at PHS. After learning Python, she did a lot of work with data. Amber took a Web Development class at PHS too and used JavaScript with graphics tools and also picked up Python at the end of the year. They both took AP Computer Science Principles at PHS and learned coding principles, and Amber’s teacher also taught them Python that year.

      Astronomy Club was a highlight at PHS. Amber has had a really good experience in that club. She joined in 9th grade because Sylvia was in it. They went on a field trip to Mt. Wilson Observatory, and it was a really eye-opening experience for her. She was more interested in astronomy, and after that she became more active in participating in the club. Reflecting on her time at PHS, Sylvia thinks she had a pretty good experience. At PHS, she was introduced to computer science, astronomy, robotics, chemistry, physics, etc. which was a good introduction to these sciences.

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        • Scott Phelps

          Scott Phelps teaches physics and astronomy at the University of La Verne and Mt. San Antonio College and tutors math and science in the region. He served as an elected member of the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Trustees from 2005 to 2022. He currently teaches at PUSD’s Center for Independent Study.

          Colorado Boulevard is your place for enlightening events, informative news and social living for the greater Pasadena area.
          We strive to inform, educate, and work together to make a better world for all of us, locally and globally.

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      1. Kamala Almanzar says:

        Thank you for highlighting students in our public schools

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