The Thacher Years 1959-1999

The Summer Science Program began in 1959 at The Thacher School in Ojai, California (north of Los Angeles). Thacher’s headmaster, Newton Chase, had decided that the most promising high school students, most capable of careers in science and engineering, were not being adequately inspired to pursue STEM paths. He conceived of an intense summer program to challenge them beyond anything they could experience in high school, in a collaborative and supportive community.

Mr. Chase persuaded Caltech, Pomona College, and Harvey Mudd College to contribute faculty and guest speakers. But what would the students do over the six weeks? Pomona astronomer Paul Routly had a novel idea for that: asteroid orbit determination.

Dr. Routly’s description of SSP then still applies today: “What we wanted to do was to expose these kids to a real professional scientific experience which they never had in high school. And these kids were picked very carefully — they were very brilliant.”

Class of 1959
The late Caltech physicist Richard Feynman gave nine unforgettable SSP guest lectures (including this one) between 1960 and 1980.

SSP students have performed similar research each summer since, with their observations submitted to the Minor Planet Center for use by other scientists. Over half a century after Dr. Routly’s inspiration in the spring of 1959, students doing real research has become a trend in science education.

SSP was held at The Thacher School for 41 years, 1959 through 1999. During the first two decades, SSP remained an informal co-op, with administrative responsibility rotated between Caltech, Pomona, and Harvey Mudd. UCLA became involved in 1960 when Prof. George Abell (famous for his discovery of the “Abell clusters” of galaxies) joined the faculty. After 1981, the National Science Foundation stopped funding summer programs, so the college affiliates no longer had an administrative role; Thacher assumed full responsibility for continuing SSP.

UCLA astronomer George Abell served as SSP Academic Director for 12 years. The "Abell Clusters" of galaxies he discovered are the largest known structures in the universe. Photo by Ken Nordhauser '76.
Dr. Paul Routly
Dr. Paul Routly designed the asteroid orbit determination project still in use at SSP.