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December 24, 2012

Fine arts and physics side by side at Caltech

They have gathered in a modest room on a brisk Thursday night to assemble a makeshift stage, run lines and finalize light cues. Their mood is light but purposeful as "curtain time" nears.

PASADENA – They have gathered in a modest room on a brisk Thursday night to assemble a makeshift stage, run lines and finalize light cues. Their mood is light but purposeful as "curtain time" nears.

Soon, the director leads the company in a warm-up to loosen their limbs and vocal cords. This is one of their final rehearsals at the Armory Center for the Arts in Old Town Pasadena.

Most are students at the California Institute of Technology, renowned for cultivating the minds that helped produce the personal computer and the Mars rovers, and for developing the world's future leaders in science and technology. But these students are learning how to move on stage, project to the back row and yes, put on a show.

Students here are among the brightest mathematicians and scientists, but another, lesser-known aspect of life at the Pasadena campus is an interest in the arts and humanities.

A small but slowly growing number of students are choosing majors like English and history and coupling them with a science or math major. And recently, officials changed the core curriculum, reducing the math and physics requirements from five quarters to three each as part of a total of 13 courses in math and science.

Caltech has long required students to take 12 courses in the humanities and social sciences, said Jonathan Katz, chairman of Caltech's division of humanities and social sciences. Creative thinking, verbal skills, risk-taking and exploration of new possibilities are among the skills that professors want to encourage in their students.

"The goal of the humanities program is to give them an appreciation for what it is and to give them a broader perspective. What is the big picture?" said Katz, a political scientist and statistician. "There is not always a right answer. What we want to do is to provide our students with a set of tools to be lifelong learners."

Extracurricular activities in performance – theater, band, glee club and the like – do not meet the humanities requirement, but students may take them for credit.

Since the mid-1980s, the school has developed a popular theater program where students, professors and employees from the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory stage plays. Campus officials say helping students who excel in math and science further develop how they speak, write and relate to others will only make them better at what they do beyond graduation, mirroring a larger trend in science education centered on the value of graduating renaissance men and women.

"They become more confident, more interesting. They're more engaging as human beings," said Brian Brophy, director of theater arts at Caltech. "They're better able to work with adults and talk with adults on a more resonating level."

Medical schools, in particular, have been embracing the value of the arts and humanities more in their curricula.

Medical humanities programs, where students are required to take courses in literature, art and other subjects, have been sprouting up to teach doctors about devising treatments rooted in patient empathy and understanding.

As the practice of medicine has grown more impersonal, complaints concerning physicians are more about communication and interpersonal skills than knowledge or training, said Dr. Henry Sondheimer, senior director of medical education projects for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The association administers the Medical College Admission Test. In 2015, the test will add a new social and behavioral sciences section that includes questions about sociology and psychology. The association is also researching ways to measure applicants' oral communication, social skills and qualities such as adaptability and flexibility.

"The medical schools are very conscious about fostering in the students a much broader view of medicine as not only a scientific discipline," Sondheimer said.

For many Caltech students, performing on stage or playing an instrument complements what they might do in a lab or classroom.

Senior Matthew Diamond, a geochemistry major, acted in the latest production and was assistant director. Diamond, also a musician, said he is learning skills that he can use in his scientific life, where he often must talk about his research.

"If you're performing in a play, it makes any kind of presentation easier," said Diamond, 21. "As long as you're prepared, you can have fun doing it. You can add personality and be comfortable being in front of people."

Kelvin Bates, a first-year graduate student in chemistry, played the young Bobby Fischer, a lead role in the company's production of "Mate," a play about the late chess master. He said the contrast between what he does in the lab and prepping for a play makes him a better scientist.

"I wanted some time allotted to very much take me outside the stuff I'm doing during the day," said Bates, 22. "When you dive back into science work, it's fresher work."

Stella Wang, 18, heard Brophy speak to students about the theater program during freshman orientation. Wang, who plans to major in bioengineering and pre-med, is interested in scene design.

"If you really want to do something, you'll make time for it," said Wang, who worked on sound production for "Mate."

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