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Leading Academic Innovation | 5 Lessons From Caltech’s Cassandra Horii

We first met Cassandra Horii at the Inaugural Leading Academic Change Summit, a convening of 70 senior-level academic change agents from universities around the country. Cassandra is the founding Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach at the California Institute of Technology, generally known as Caltech.

Our conversation at the Summit revolved around the opportunities and challenges facing academic transformation agents, and leaders inside centers for teaching and learning. Cassandra, like many teaching and learning center directors, has been tasked with leading Caltech’s focus on teaching methods, connecting teaching faculty to others using new and unique methods in their classrooms, and starting a dialogue on campus about emerging teaching methods. We were intrigued by Cassandra’s work combining educational outreach with experiential learning methods at Caltech, and wanted to share it with the Innovator Network.

After the Summit, I spent over two hours learning about her first two years leading the Center, the challenges, successes, and goals she has, and what others might learn from Caltech. Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing Cassandra’s academic transformation story with you.


Cassandra came to Caltech to start the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach nearly two and a half years ago. The Center focuses on innovative teaching, and also on the awareness, discussion, and adoption of new teaching methods. The Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach serves a few different audiences: faculty, teaching assistants (TAs), and students, which provides a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Cassandra began her tenure at Caltech with conversations. She met face-to-face with people from all different parts of campus —professors, academic division chairs, graduate and undergraduate students, staff — and found that while many individuals were interested in the work of the Center, there was no existing network of people interested.

“There was a sense of interest and support. People were on board with starting up a center, but they didn’t know what their colleagues’ responses would be. How many people would show up; how many people would actually want to work on aspects of the curriculum and teaching?”

From there, Cassandra made it her mission to position the Center as a catalyst for creating that network — to transition from a hub with spokes out to each academic division, to a dynamic network of cross-division collaboration and learning.

“For the Center, the sense of isolation we heard from people actively interested in teaching and learning, coupled with the emerging network of dedicated educators, led us to believe that the connections between people across the institute are really critical to institutional change. Who else is doing similar work? Who else is using new tools? Who else is interacting with students in new ways?”


“Our goal became to better connect the individuals to one another and help them see themselves as a groundswell of interest. It’s a shift in perspective from ‘I’m an early adopter’ to ‘I’m one of many. I’m part of a community.’”

One other unique characteristic of Caltech is that the community of scholars is small enough–about 300 faculty–that they can know a really large fraction of their colleagues. There are already natural events where faculty join together socially, as well as within and across disciplines. This dynamic has lead to unique collaborations for research, so Cassandra wants to catalyze it for the practice of teaching.  

How she’s accomplished that so far… 


  1. Don’t have expectations about who will and won’t be champions of your cause.

One of my first questions for Cassandra about her work was “Who have been the unexpected collaborators or co-champions in your work — either within or outside Caltech?” I thought this might get at some new ideas for others engaged in academic change on their campuses. Cassandra promptly flipped the question on its head and assured me that she intentionally tried not to have an expectation. She’s found that her co-champions have represented a wide range of faculty – early, mid, and later career; long-time innovators and those with more traditional views of teaching; enthusiasts and skeptics. There isn’t a perfect pattern for who is and isn’t likely to be experimenting with teaching methods on campus. It’s more a matter of searching for those faculty and engaging them.


  1. Combine visits from external experts with commentary from internal champions.

Leading Academic Innovation | Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach

If you want to convince faculty that their colleagues’ innovations in teaching are worth noting and adapting, this might be the best way to do it. Cassandra is implementing a 2-year series where guests from beyond the institution will be brought in to speak and interact with faculty and give them a greater sense of possibility in teaching innovation. What makes these events unique, though, is that the series will also feature Caltech’s own faculty to highlight Caltech work that has been happening under the radar. Cassandra believes this interspersing of external and internal experts will catalyze conversations and adoption of academic change institution-wide. Cassandra describes it this way:

“My hypothesis is that external speakers draw people in. Faculty want to show up and be good hosts to their colleagues. Then, interspersing those events with what’s going on internally, we might close the gap between our self-perception with what’s actually happening so that more people know that faculty at Caltech are already doing this work.”


  1. Remember the data. 

It should come as no surprise that this point comes from Caltech, but it’s a point well taken at any institution. Cassandra described a recent meeting where her team was asked for data to back up their suggestions about improving teaching and learning.

“We were meeting with the faculty advisory committee, and they asked some excellent and really hard questions about institutional data. These questions might seem skeptical or challenging, but I understand their demand for intellectual rigor and metrics.  At the same time, we’re talking about a very personal thing — how one teaches and interacts with students. We need to be both rigorous and acknowledge the human dimensions of institutional change. So, we’re going to work on it… what is the pre-state and what is the desired post-state? How will we measure progress?”


  1. Involve the community outside the institution.

A critical branch of Caltech’s Center is outreach. For Caltech, this specifically means partnering with the local K–12 school districts for mutual enhancement of learning. This benefits innovations in teaching and learning because it multiplies the occasions to focus on them, in ways that matter to faculty and students. For example, working on research grant and fellowship proposals that ask for specific plans related to education brings in faculty who might not otherwise be thinking about changing teaching practices. Others find a sense of motivation and mission in working with younger students and K-12 teachers and view it as intrinsic to their work as scientists. This might look a bit different for your institution than for Caltech, but it’s worth considering how you might engage with external partners, from school districts to entrepreneurs to foundations, to incentivize and motivate your faculty.


  1. Don’t shy away from no; Learn from it.

Leading Academic Innovation | Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and OutreachThis is perhaps the most widely applicable piece of Cassandra’s experience. An example she gave centered around a graduate-level course on university-level science teaching, that she had to shop around for a home in an academic division.

“I got several no’s, but informative no’s. It’s good to make thoughtful asks that might be totally rejected, because it gave me a lot of insight into people’s perspectives and concerns. The no can give you invaluable information.”

She went on to talk about the value of asking as a form of stakeholder engagement, even if you expect to receive mostly no’s, and the value of just one yes — a lesson that surely stands to inform all academic innovation efforts.

“I’ve started approaching our academic divisions to see if we can embed some teaching innovation talks and workshops into disciplinary colloquia and seminar series. I might get some no’s, which is fine, because it raises the idea. And the one yes so far will serve as an example of what’s possible.”


We’ll be checking back in with Cassandra in a few months to see what progress she’s made and what new lessons she’s learned. In the mean time, we’d love to hear your stories.


Could any of Cassandra’s ideas be adapted to your work?

What else about Cassandra and Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach would you like to hear more about next time?

What methods for achieving academic transformation have worked at your institution?

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