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2013 November 11

labhacks — The $25 scrunchable scientific poster

Filed under: Science fair,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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A friend just sent me link to  labhacks — The $25 scrunchable scientific poster:

Printed on Spoonflower performance knit at 300 dpi. 36”×56”, vivid colors, no unraveling, and minimal wrinkling, even after being stuffed in a backpack. Hangs straight with about 8 pins. Print cost is $22 with $3 shipping.

The idea is to use a service intended for custom printing fabric to print posters instead.  According to the web page for Spoonflower, the fabric printing company, the material is $21.60 per yard for the designer of the pattern:

Performance Knit: $24/yard ($21.60 with designer discount)

100% polyester fabric with moisture management

  • 56″ wide printable area (142 cm)
  • 4.1 oz per square yard
  • Optic white, produced in the US
  • Appropriate for athletic apparel
  • Estimated shrinkage: 1-2%
  • Weft directional stretch is 25% maximum
  • Wash separately in cool or warm water using a gentle machine cycle. Machine dry using a low temperature setting. If required, use an iron with a light touch on a synthetic setting only. Higher iron temperatures may result in color transfer and melting of fabric.

They also warn that

Our fabrics have not been treated with fire retardant chemicals and are for this reason not suitable for use in children’s sleepwear or bedding. They are also not suitable for display purposes in public buildings unless you apply such treatment after purchase.

I don’t believe that paper scientific posters are any more flame retardant than cloth ones, though the fumes may be a little less noxious, and burning paper does not stick to things the way that molten plastics do, so cloth posters may indeed need to be treated with flame retardants for safety if you plan to display them long term. A quart spray bottle of flame retardant (enough for about 6–7 posters) costs about $15 online.

Given the awkwardness of the standard poster tubes when traveling, I can see the attraction of the cloth poster, though I worried that it might a bit bulky to pack. But a 36”×56” poster would only weigh 6.4 oz, about the same as a t-shirt (I just weighed one of my t-shirts at 189g, which is 6.7oz), so it can probably be packed in about the same space as one or two t-shirts.

The biggest downside is that printing the fabric takes 10 days, plus shipping time.  Spoonflower does have a rush-order service with next-day service and 2-day shipping, so the turnaround time could be a small as 3 days, but I did not look up how expensive the rush orders and shipping are.

According to their help page,

Acceptable file formats are JPG, PNG, GIF, TIF, SVG, AI, and EPS, and the file must be less than 40 MB. Vector files (AI, SVG, or EPS) are converted to PNG format during the upload process at a size chosen by you.

Elsewhere they warn against sending vector files (SVG, AI, and some EPS files), because the files have to be converted to raster format before printing, and there are often surprises in the conversion process (they don’t say what conversion program they use, but I know that there are often problems with Corel Draw mis-interpreting SVG files—I’ve run into that problem with both laser cutting and T-shirt stencil design).

If you are careful in your use of images, the 40MB limitation should not be too bad.  I tested converting an old poster of mine from PDF to PNG at 300dpi, and it grew from 0.6MB to 6.4MB—still well within the 40MB limit.  I did not have any photographs on that poster, though, which makes a huge difference—plots and cartoons don’t take up nearly as much memory as photographic images.

Spoonflower also warns that their color gamut is different from most monitors and printers—they use water-based dyes that don’t do large areas of saturated colors or solid black areas very well, but they use more than 4 inks, so they can get a wider color gamut than most printers.  You can get a “color map” of 1500 color swatches printed on the fabric you plan to use for the cost of a yard of fabric (about $25).  They use an RGB color space and have ICC profiles available free for how the colors come out on each of their fabrics, so you can get a decent idea of how colors would come out if you use software that has a color management engine.

The person who sent me the link to labhacks was suggesting the cloth posters for science fairs, but I’m afraid they would not work there.  Most science fairs are based on table-top displays, not wall-mounted or easel-mounted posters, so science fair posters need to be free-standing.  Although one can devise means for hanging a cloth poster in the standard, it seems more complicated to me than a foldable foam-core or cardboard display, and the rig would be just as hard to pack and carry on airplanes as the foldable board. I’ve also not found any information on the Spoonflower site about maximum length restrictions for their printing.  Can they even do the standard 6′ tall science fair poster? (probably, but they only talk about sizes up to a yard).

I don’t think that Spoonflower is going to get inundated by orders for scientific posters, but think that a few people will find the ease of packing “scrunchable” posters attractive.  If I ever decide to start traveling to conferences again, I might try it myself.

Update 2013 Nov 12:

After I posted an announcement of this blog post to researchers at work, one sent me the following ad that they had just received from another company providing fabric posters.  I guess it is a trending fad.

New Solution for Conference Posters!

Take a long flight? Now you can put your fabric crease-resistant
poster in your carry-on and say goodbye to poster tubes.

Same Day Printing and 2-Day Delivery.

check our delivery schedule or visit us now: www.postersmith.com

($15 Off Coupon Code*: SABCS2013)

The fabric poster offered by PosterSmith.com is made of 100% high-density polyethylene fibers with UV inhibitor coating. This crease-resistant fabric is light and durable and is specifically designed for high resolution printing. Because of the UV inhibitor coating, the ink of our fabric poster will last much longer than a paper poster. The printing quality of our fabric poster is better than printing on the widely-used matte paper. Your poster printed on our fabric material will resemble the feeling of printing on a glossy paper (which has tighter surface and looks brighter) but generates no glossy paper’s reflective glare. *Coupon code expire 06/30/2014

Note, even with the $15 off, PosterSmith is a lot more expensive than SpoonFlower.

2013 September 23

Science Fair Workshop

Filed under: home school,Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:45
Tags: , , ,

Suki Wessling, my son, and I ran science fair workshop last week for middle school and high school home-schooled students.  Our attendance was meager (one student other than our two sons).  So that the effort we put into the handout will not be wasted, I’ll put it in this blog post.  The next time I do a handout for science fair, I’ll want to add a section on doing engineering projects also, since those have a somewhat different process than the simplified version of the “scientific method” that we described.

The remainder of this post is the handout:

 

Science Fair Workshop for Parents

Why science fairs?

The science fair is a lot of work. However, it is also a very rewarding project to do with your child. Benefits include

  • Helping your child do a project that has a beginning, middle, and end. This can be very useful for children who tend to be scattered and unfocused.

  • Completing a cross-discipline project, including science, math, language arts, and public speaking.

  • Supporting your child to approach more challenging work.

  • Meeting other families who love science.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method:

  • Is the basis of science

  • Is the opposite of having a belief and finding a justification for it

  • Is not weakened when hypotheses are disproven

The steps of the scientific method are

  1. Observe

  2. Form an investigative question

  3. Read what others have written, and make competing models that explain the observation

  4. Come up with a hypothesis (a prediction that is different in the competing models, not a guess)

  5. Conduct experiments

  6. Accept or reject hypothesis

An example of the scientific method in action:

  1. Observe that a plant in the shady part of your garden didn’t grow well.

  2. Why didn’t that plant grow as well as plants you put in at the same time in the sunny part of the garden?

  3. Read about what plants need to grow, noting that different plants need different amounts of sun and water.

  4. Hypothesis: This plant needs a certain amount of sunlight per day to grow well.

  5. Plant a good number of seedlings (6–8) and subject half of them to sunny conditions, half to shady conditions. Keep a notebook of the plants’ progress, with observations and measurements.

  6. Consider whether the data support the hypothesis.

How to find a project

There are many places to look to find a good project:

  • The best projects grow out of a child’s actual interest.

  • The best projects take advantage of what children like to do (e.g., messy projects, outdoor projects, math-based projects).

  • Try out examples on a science fair project website just for ideas, then try to expand on or change them based on your child’s interests.

  • Don’t just replicate the steps of a project outlined on the web!

Tips for getting through the process

  1. Plan early: Get all the dates on your calendar, and make sure your child has enough time to do all the steps (including writing the report).

  2. Don’t bite off too much: If your child’s idea is too BIG, help him whittle it down to size. Don’t be tempted to finish it off if the child resists finishing—this is also part of the learning process.

  3. Plan to be completely done well before your school’s science fair (if you’re taking part in one).

  4. There is nothing wrong with preparation: successful kids do actually practice their spiels. However, don’t overprep your child so that she seems to be reciting something you wrote. Make sure she understands what she’s talking about and only uses words she really understands.

What do judges look for?

See more details from Kevin: http://tinyurl.com/7n8r3yv

  • Multiple replication of the experiments—generally the more the better, but 3 is usually a minimum.  More replication is generally better than more different conditions.

  • Proper controls (both positive and negative, when possible)

  • Graphical display of the results with correctly labeled axes and no chart junk

  • Correct use of units of measurement

  • Proper (simple) statistics (averages, best fit straight lines, …) High school students may add standard deviation and significance tests (chi-square or Student’s T)

  • Measuring the right thing

  • Measuring and reporting inputs as well as outputs

  • Lab notebook with detailed information recorded as the experiment is done

  • Clever use of simple equipment

  • Careful thought about how the experiment could be improved if it were to be repeated

Homeschoolers and the SC Science Fair

  • Students doing projects involving invertebrate or vertebrate animals, human subjects, recombinant DNA, tissue, pathogenic agents, or controlled substances, need to get approval from their sponsoring teacher before they begin their research. A Certificate of Compliance Form must be signed by both student and sponsoring teacher, then submitted by the registration deadline. (The detailed rules have not been published yet for this year—they will be in the “Science Fair Guide”.)

  • Put the schedule on your calendar, including the awards night.

  • If your homeschool program takes part, make sure your teacher meets the school roster deadline.

  • If you are independent or your program doesn’t take part, fill out the registration form and choose your school if it’s in the list. If not, put your private school’s name in the Other box. Submit a school roster after you register.

Winning and losing

Although it’s a competition, the SC Science Fair does a great job of making all the kids feel like they have achieved something. It’s always good to focus more on the event itself—setting up the display, talking to judges, and looking at other kids’ work—than talking about the prizes.

Resources

2013 August 30

WEST theater classes fill up fast

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:08
Tags: , , , ,

Today was the first day of registration for WEST Performing Arts classes, and by 9:00 a.m. one of the teen classes was already full:

WEST Ensemble Players: Inspecting Carol & Much Ado About Nothing
Day/Time: Thursdays, 6:30pm – 8:45pm
Dates: September 12 – May 15 (30 weeks; see website for details)
Location: West End Studio Theatre
THIS IS A FULL SEASON (Sept. – May) enrollment
8 Monthly payments of $120 (see website for payment schedule)

Sorry, this class is full

How, you may wonder, did that happen? Well, WEST classes usually fill up quickly, but this was a special case. Earlier in the week, there had been an e-mail sent out to families of teens who had been in the WEST Ensemble Players last year:

The fall schedule has posted online at WEST. Please note that the official start of registration is Friday, August 30th. Again this year, WEST Ensemble Players will be a small class with an expected maximum of 12 students for the fall and possibly 15 students for the spring. The students expressed a desire to stay together as a group last spring. I know lives and interests and plans change, but I would like to extend a priority registration to the students from last year’s WEST Ensemble Players classes before this class opens to the public. Please note the classes were created keeping in mind a full season curriculum. This year, we are asking for a full September–May commitment. If you don’t feel you can commit to this, we can add you to the class for one semester only if there is space available.

If you are planning on joining the WEST Ensemble Players class, please email me directly so I can secure your place in the class.

We jumped on the opportunity, and it looks like everyone else from last year did also.  There is a slightly different feel for a group that works together often—the difference between a pick-up game and a team.  I’m expecting great things of the WEST Ensemble Players this year!

This is my son’s senior year of high school, so his last year with WEST.  Because he has finished all high school graduation requirements except a year of English, half a year of econ, and half a year of civics, he is taking this year to concentrate on his fun subjects:

  • 3 theater classes: WEST Ensemble Players (which filled up before registration opened to the public), Dinosaur Prom Improv (a closed troupe, with the same players as last year) and Page to Stage (a slightly new endeavor for WEST in adapting literature to the stage—with students doing the scriptwriting and directing, as well as the acting). WEST has opened up a couple more intermediate improv classes, probably in the hopes of replacing graduating members of Dinosaur Prom next year and possibly of forming a competing troupe, but since he is already in Dinosaur Prom, he doesn’t need another weekly improv outlet.
    Update—2013 Sept 31: Page to Stage filled up on the first day without any pre-registration, so the teen classes at WEST are indeed in high demand.
  • Two computer engineering projects: extending the Arduino Data Logger he wrote last year (many new features) and the Bluetooth light gloves project.
  • Group Theory as an online class from Art of Problem Solving

And some not so fun ones:

  • AP Chemistry through ChemAdvantage (I won’t be teaching him myself).  This one will not be painful, but is not a big interest.
  • Econ at home (Fall semester)  He may be able to work some of the financial planning for the light-gloves project into this course, as he will be doing a fairly detailed business plan and cost estimation for manufacturing the gloves.  Again, not too painful, but he probably wouldn’t bother if it weren’t a high school graduation requirement in California.
  • Civics at home (Spring semester) Possibly painful, certainly boring, but a high school graduation requirement.
  • English: writing in the fall (a combination of the Page to Stage class, college application essays, and tech writing), dramatic literature in the Spring (with the trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival).  The writing parts will probably be painful, but we’ll try not to have any make-work writing, but only writing that clearly needs to be done and has a genuine audience.

He’s also looking at some possible community service: being a TA for the Python class gain this year, possibly starting an Arduino/microcontroller club (his consultant teacher wants to see more socialization among the homeschooled computer geeks), and doing a workshop in a few weeks with me to encourage home-schooled middle schoolers and high schoolers to enter the county science fair.  It isn’t obvious whether he’ll enter science fair this year himself—he’d like to have a 7th year at state, just to have done it every year possible, but he doesn’t have any big projects right now other than the data logger (which he took to state last year) and the light gloves (which are an ambitious engineering project, but not the sort of “save-the-world” project that the state judges like—and they generally prefer science to engineering).

We met with our consultant teacher yesterday, and she approved this plan.

2013 July 2

Pressure sensor with air pump

I’ve been thinking of expanding the pressure sensor lab for the Applied Circuits Course to do something more than just measure breath pressure.  Perhaps something that conveys another physics or engineering concept.

One thing I thought of doing was measuring the back pressure and air flow on an aquarium air pump bubbling air into an aquarium. Looking at the tradeoff of flow-rate and back pressure would be a good characterization of an air pump (something I wish was clearly shown in advertisements for aquarium air pumps and air stones).  Measuring flow rate is a bit of a pain—about the best I could think of was to bubble air into an inverted soda bottle (or other known volume) and time it.

This would be a good physics experiment and might even make a decent middle-school product-science science fair project (using a cheap mechanical low-pressure gauge, rather than an electronic pressure sensor), but setting up tanks of water in an electronics lab is a logistic nightmare, and I don’t think I want to go there.

I can generate back pressure with just a simple clamp on the hose, though, and without a flow rate measurement we could do everything completely dry.

Setup for measuring the back pressure for an aquarium air pump (needs USB connection for data logger and power).

Setup for measuring the back pressure for an aquarium air pump (needs USB connection for data logger and power).

Using the Arduino data loggger my son wrote, I recorded the air pressure while adjusting the clamp (to get the y-axis scale correct, I had to use the estimated gain of the amplifier based on resistor sizes used in the amplifier).

The peak pressure, with the clamp sealing the hose shut, seems to be about 14.5 kPa (2.1psi).

The peak pressure, with the clamp sealing the hose shut, seems to be about 14.5 kPa (2.1psi).

I was interested in the fluctuation in the pressure, so I set the clamp to get about half the maximum back pressure, then recorded with the Arduino data logger set to its highest sampling frequency (1ms/sample).

The fluctuation in back pressure seems to have both a 60Hz and a 420Hz component.

The fluctuation in back pressure seems to have both a 60Hz and a 420Hz component with back pressure at about half maximum.

Because the Arduino data logger has trouble dealing with audio frequency signals, I decided to take another look at the signals using the Bitscope pocket analyzer.

The waveform for the pressure fluctuations from the AQT3001 air pump, with the backpressure about 7kPa (half the maximum).

The waveform for the pressure fluctuations from the AQT3001 air pump, with the back pressure about 7.5kPa (half the maximum).

One advantage of using the Bitscope is that it has FFT analysis:

Spectrum for the back pressure fluctuation.  One can see many of the multiples of 60Hz, with the particularly strong peak at 420Hz.

Spectrum for the back pressure fluctuation. One can see many of the multiples of 60Hz, with the particularly strong peak at 420Hz.

I was also interested in testing a Whisper40 air pump (a more powerful, but quieter, pump). When I clamped the hose shut for that air pump, the hi-gain output of the amplifier for the pressure sensor saturated, so I had to use the low gain output to determine the maximum pressure (24.8kPA, or about 3.6psi). The cheap Grafco clamp that I used is a bit hard to get complete shutoff with (I needed to adjust the position of the tubing and use pliers to turn the knob).  It is easy to get complete shutoff if the tube is folded over, but then modulation of less than complete shutoff is difficult.

The fluctuation in pressure shows a different waveform from the AQT3001:

The Whisper40 air pump, with the clamp set to get about half the maximum back pressure, produces a 60Hz sawtooth pressure waveform, without the strong 420Hz component seen from the AQT3001.

The Whisper40 air pump, with the clamp set to get a bit less than half the maximum back pressure, produces a 60Hz sawtooth pressure waveform, without the strong 420Hz component seen from the AQT3001. The peak-to-peak fluctuation in pressure seems to be largest around this back pressure. The 3kPa fluctuation is larger than for the AQT3001, but the pump seems quieter.

The main noise from the pump is not from the fluctuation in the pressure in the air hose, but radiation from the case of the pump. That noise seems to be least when the back pressure is about 1.1kPa (not at zero, surprisingly). The fluctuation is then all positive pressure, ranging from 0 to 2.2kPa and is nearly sinusoidal, with some 2nd and 3rd harmonic.

As the back pressure increases for the Whisper40, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics get larger, but the 60Hz fundamental gets smaller. The 4th harmonic is maximized (with the 1st through 4th harmonics almost equal) at about 22.8kPa, above which all harmonics get smaller, until the air hose is completely pinched off and there is no pressure variation.

When driving the large airstone in our aquarium, the Whisper40 has a back pressure of about 7.50kPa (1.1psi) with a peak-to-peak fluctuation of about 2.6kPa.

I’m not sure whether this air-pump back-pressure experiment is worth adding to the pressure sensor lab.  If I decide to do it, we would need to get a dozen cheap air pumps.  The Tetra 77853 Whisper 40 air pump is $11.83 each from Amazon, but the smaller one for 10-gallon aquariums is only $6.88.  With 12 Ts and 12 clamps, this would cost about $108, which is not a significant cost for the lab.

2013 April 20

College tours around LA

Sorry I’ve not been posting this week, but I’ve been on the road with my 11th-grade son around Los Angeles for science fair and college campus tours.

On Monday and Tuesday, we had the California State Science Fair, where he had a project in the math and software high school division, and I was judging in the math and software middle-school division.  He did not expect to win anything this year, as he had a fairly straightforward engineering project—the Arduino data logger that he wrote for my circuits class to use.  The project was well done for a high school student (comparable to some senior projects I’ve seen by college students), but not flashy in the way that science fair judges like. Indeed he did not win anything at state this year, but he was one of only 11 students who had been to state science fair 6 or more times—so he shows consistent quality and perseverance, even if he never wins the lottery that science fair judging often is.  The top math and software award at the high-school level this year went to a math project (not a software project), which is a bit unusual.  I did not read the poster for it in any detail, which I now regret, as it must have been pretty good to overcome the usual judging bias in favor of software.

The middle-school math and software category had a unanimous vote for the first-place project: an ambitious image-processing project with an interesting application and pretty good code (properly commented—a rarity at the middle-school level or even the high-school level).   The order of the next few projects was more strongly debated, but all of them were very good projects, and the order ended up depending more on the tastes and persuasive abilities of the judges than on the inherent merits of the projects.

Since we were down in Los Angeles for the science fair, we decided to extend the trip by 3 days to visit three colleges in the area: Caltech, UCLA, and Harvey Mudd.  [The science fair is right by USC, but that was not our list of colleges to visit—we've seen the campus often enough, and the academic program did not appeal.] Originally we had planned a west-to-east sweep (UCLA, Caltech, Harvey Mudd) to minimize the transit time, but Caltech was not doing tours on Thursday and Friday (preparing for their admitted-students yield event this weekend), so we changed the order to Caltech, UCLA, Harvey Mudd. To get from the science fair to Pasadena, we took a DASH bus, the red line (subway), and the gold line (light rail).  That used 2 different transit systems (LA DOT runs the DASH buses, and Metro runs the subway, the light rail, and all the other buses that we took on this trip).

I couldn’t find any reasonably priced motels or hotels near UCLA in my on-line searches, so we stayed one night in Pasadena and two nights in Claremont, with the UCLA tour sandwiched in between the 2-hour, 2-bus Pasadena-Westwood and 3-hour (bus, subway, train) Westwood-Claremont transits.  I had originally planned to take a taxi from UCLA to Claremont (a pretty expensive ride across Los Angeles), but my son wanted to include a Metrolink commuter rail link in the trip somewhere in our trip, so we ended up taking the Metro number 2 bus from UCLA to the red line, the red line to Union Station, and Metrolink to Claremont.  The subway and commuter rail portions were fairly pleasant, but the number 2 bus was so full that we felt guilty for having luggage—Metro probably needs to run more buses on that route during rush hour.

The LA transit system is usually maligned by the locals, who claim that it is so bad that they have to drive everywhere, but it seemed pretty reasonable to us—under-utilized, perhaps, but reasonably quick and with decent connections.  Of course, just about any local bus system will only provide about 10-mile-per-hour transportation, so bicycling is almost always faster, but that is an option that is seems very , very few people choose in Los Angeles.

OK, enough on transit, what about the 3 colleges?

At Caltech we had a very small tour group (just 3 prospective students) and a friendly, barefoot tour guide.  We were shown the Caltech “houses” and the guide talked a lot about Caltech traditions.  Some of the traditions (like the honor code) seem great, but a lot of the other traditions seemed to be based mainly on rivalry, competition, and mean-spirited pranks. The social activities mentioned (like the interhouse parties) seemed to be mainly competitive events also (which house could build the most elaborate set for their party).  We saw almost no students while on the tour, no classrooms, no professors—very little other than the houses and the outsides of buildings.  The campus seemed strangely deserted for a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the term.

The Caltech campus does have some nice-looking buildings, and there are supposedly a lot of Nobel prize winners around, but we didn’t hear much about students actually interacting with the professors—the impression was that the professors mainly kept their heads down and did research with their postdocs and grad students. My son had tried to arrange meetings with a computer science faculty member by e-mail, but the first one he contacted suggested he talk to someone else, and that person said he was too busy, but that my son should just wander down the hall and stick his head in an open door.  We ended up not talking to any Caltech faculty or even seeing any from a distance.

The one academic message that we got from Caltech was “physics”.  They teach physics at Caltech—occasionally they give it a different name (math, chemistry, computer science, engineering, … ), but when you look at the research interests of the faculty, it is almost all physics in different flavors.  My son likes physics, and would probably do ok at Caltech, but he has other interests as well, and Caltech does not seem to provide instruction or opportunities in them.  He also likes doing applied work more than theory, and Caltech (according to the student tour guide and what we could glean from the web) is very theory-oriented.  Caltech does have some theater that he could participate in, but their entire “theater and visual arts” program apparently fits in a small 2-story house and a shed at the corner of campus, and there was no one around on a Wednesday afternoon to get any information from.

UCLA was in many ways the opposite of Caltech.  It is a large, bustling campus, crowded with students the whole time we were there. Students walked or hung out in groups (very little wheeled transportation, because of the number of hills and stairs).  There did not seem to be many quiet places on campus (unlike Caltech, where the entire campus seemed to be silent).

The tour group we were with for a 2-hour walking tour was large—probably 15 students plus accompanying family members.  The tour guide showed us many buildings (including the insides of a nice library), but no residences (which are a 20-minute walk away from the academic buildings), and she told us about admissions and other generic information.  The campus tours seem to be entirely student run (the campus tours office is in the student government building and staffed entirely by students), rather than part of the admissions office.  The tour was pretty good, for a large, generic tour, and UCLA does have some nice-looking buildings (and nice-looking students, but I’m not supposed to notice that).

We had arranged a meeting with a CS faculty member, who told us about his classes and research. Undergrad computer science at UCLA has huge classes (60–80 in upper-division courses, and three times that in lower-division courses). The faculty member told us that he does not allow undergrads into his grad courses and that few undergrads get research opportunities.  He did not have numbers, but estimating from what he said, it sounds like only about 5% of CS majors at UCLA get involved in faculty research—an appallingly small number.  It sounds like it is hard for an undergrad at UCLA to get a first-rate computer science education, because they are so focused on pumping through huge numbers of OK students.

UCLA does have a great reputation in theater, so we went over to the opposite side of campus to find out whether a non-theater major could ever get roles.  We did not talk to a theater faculty member nor an administrator, but to a friendly group of theater majors.  They basically said that non-majors had essentially no chance of getting a role (or even tech work) in any theater department production—even the theater minors only got theater-appreciation classes, not acting classes.  They did say that there were some non-departmental theater productions, but that they knew almost nothing about them.  In short, it sounded like what my son wants (a really advanced computer science education with the ability to do a fair amount of acting on the side) is not available at UCLA.

I had expected Harvey Mudd to be similar to Caltech.  They both have reputations for being very techie schools with impossibly high workloads, and Harvey Mudd was started by someone with close ties to Caltech.  They both have a similar-sounding common core requirement and both have a very pure form of honor code (tests are unproctored take-home exams, with students responsible for timing themselves as well as following directions about whether notes and books are permitted).  There were a number of observable differences, though, even on a one-day visit:

  • Harvey Mudd has some of the ugliest buildings I’ve seen on any college campus.  The concrete block buildings with “warts” make UCSC’s cast concrete bunkers look stylish in contrast.  It is clear that Mudd has not been investing in the amenities wars—there is no luxury here.  The interior of the dorms look a lot like the concrete-block dorms I lived in back in the early 70s at Michigan State, but perhaps even more crowded.
  • The campus is small.  Our walking tour showed us every building on campus, including a walk through the main academic building, showing us classrooms, faculty offices, and even the wood shop and machine shop (which Mudders can use 24/7 once they have passed the safety training). The class in which students have to make a hammer to specifications from a chunk of wood and a chunk of metal seems like a good, practical course.
  • The campus is flat, so wheeled transportation is common (bikes, unicycles, skateboards, long boards, and freeline skates seemed the most popular).
  • The density of students was between that of Caltech and UCLA.  There were plenty of students around, but it was never so crowded or so loud as to be claustrophobic. A lot of the students were wearing geek T-shirts and seemed likely to be the sorts of kids my son would get along well with.
  • Faculty were clearly visible—one physics professor even kibbitzed the tour guide as he was giving the explanation of the physics core courses.
  • The admissions office gave my son a ticket for a free meal at the dining hall (and a reduced-price ticket for me).  We had lunch there, and the food was pretty good for a dining hall—more important it included several things that my son would eat on a regular basis.  We also noticed that several of the faculty ate there.  I don’t know if Harvey Mudd encourages the faculty to eat with the students (free lunch might do the trick, or the unavailability of other options), but it was good to see faculty and students in the same hall, even if at different tables.  I also noticed that none of the students were eating alone—almost everyone was in a group of 2 to 10 students. For a group of geeks, that is a rather astonishing bit of social engineering—I wonder how they accomplished it.
  • My son was also given a list of all the classes meeting at Harvey Mudd this semester and invited to sit in on any of them.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Friday, so few classes were meeting (mostly long labs).  We sat in on one of the “choice” labs for a while, and saw mainly one-on-one mentoring by the faculty member, which was good to know about, but not very exciting to watch.
  • Harvey Mudd does have an 11-course humanities, social science, and arts (HSA) requirement, about half of which has to be done at Harvey Mudd, with the rest usually being done at the other Claremont colleges.  It would be possible for him to do a theater concentration (5 theater-related courses), by taking the one Harvey Mudd theater course (simply titled “Shakespeare”) and 4 courses at Pomona.  Most of the Mudders take a fair number of courses at the other Claremont colleges—usually PE courses and courses in their HSA concentration, and cross-registration seems to be fairly straight-forward, since the Claremont colleges share a common registration system.
  • There is an aikido course at Scripps that my son could take for PE—he’s not done aikido since he was quite young, but thinks that he would enjoy picking it up again more than most PE options.
  • My son had made an appointment with a computer science faculty member and we had a good conversation with him about the Harvey Mudd requirements and opportunities in computer science.  All the computer science students have to do research or development projects and most do more than one (the senior clinic plus one or more summer research projects).  There seems to be enough depth in courses and research in the fields my son is interested in that the lack of grad courses is not really important.  Even the required common-core first course in computer science has an option for students sufficiently advanced in CS, so that he would not have to repeat stuff he’s already done.
  • The tour guide talked a lot about coöperation, mentoring, and group projects—concepts that were independently brought up by the admissions officer and by the CS faculty member.  The group projects don’t seem to be the one-person project forced on a group that most middle-school and high-school projects are, but projects big enough to benefit from multiple people working on them.  They do practice pair programming in most CS classes, which will be a new experience for my son.

Although I had expected Caltech and Harvey Mudd to be very similar schools from what I knew before the visits, I ended up with very different impressions of them.  Caltech seems to be a competitive school with a physics-centric, theoretical focus, while Harvey Mudd is a cooperative school with an applied engineering focus.  My son will probably apply to both, since getting in is largely a lottery (they both have about a 10% acceptance rate and his test scores are only average for either school), but I think that he’d end up much happier at Harvey Mudd.  UCLA looks much less attractive (other than financially), but he’ll probably apply to several of the UC schools as he is much more likely to get into them.

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