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2013 September 10

Brown University tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:04
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Monday, we toured Brown University, the school that my wife had insisted that we add to our list of tours, and not just because several of her family attended Brown and her mother lives in Rhode Island. Why wasn’t it initially on our list, and why did she insist we add it?

Brown was not on the list of top schools for undergrads in CS that I posted about earlier, which is why I had not put it on my short list of schools to visit. That just means that they were not in the top 12 for producing undergrads that went on to get PhDs in CS, nor in the top 22 for producing undergrads that went on to get NSF fellowships in CS.  Still, they have a decent computer science department, coming in the top 20 for their CS grad school in the US News and World Report rankings (an adequate measure of the reputation of the department and availability of good research projects, if not of undergraduate access to the research and of undergrad education in general).  Seven of the nine colleges we are touring are on that top 20 list, and the other two can’t be, because they don’t have grad programs.

What was attractive about Brown is their trust in students to shape their own educational programs—they have no general education requirements.  For a student who switched to home schooling largely because the standardized curriculum of high schools was too limiting (for other reasons, see the first few posts in my home-school series: School decisions, School decisions part 2,  and School decisions part 3), the thought of having complete freedom to create his own program was very encouraging.  They also have a good attitude towards prereq requirements, generally allowing students to skip preliminary courses if they can convince faculty that they are ready to tackle more challenging material (see, for example, the CS department policy on AP exams).

My son has already been shaping his education to fit his interests—he is currently doing 4 theater classes, 2 computer-engineering projects, AP chem, group theory, and 2 required high-school distribution requirements in economics and writing.  The idea of being able to do that without the overload coming from courses that are less interesting but just “required” is very appealing to him.

The information session at Brown reassured us that the open educational approach was not just marketing hype, but a core part of how Brown viewed their educational mission.  They also reassured us about the high availability of research for undergrads—we heard that something like 70–80% of CS undergrads did research, and undergrads in all disciplines were highly encouraged to do research. The large number of undergrads (6,133) relative to grads  (1,947), while not as extreme as UCSC’s 9-to-1 ratio, does mean that the faculty will spend more time with the undergrads than at more grad-focused campuses. (Of course, 4-year colleges like Harvey Mudd and Olin College of Engineering will have faculty even more intensely focused on the undergrads.)

Small class sizes (87% of classes under 40 students), with most of the big classes being ones he didn’t plan to take anyway, were also attractive.

The tour was perhaps the best we’ve seen so far.  It was not tailored to engineers, the way the Harvey Mudd and Stanford ones were, and was not quite as comprehensive as the Harvey Mudd one (Brown is about ten times as big, and the tour couldn’t be ten times as long), but the tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and friendly—she even provided her e-mail address to students who wanted to ask her questions that came up later (thanks, Haley!).  She was able to talk about computer science, since she was a computational molecular biology major (though only just starting her CS courses, she had several friends in CS) and about the large number of theater groups on campus (she was mainly into dance, but had an administrative role in student activities, and so knew many of the performing arts groups).  As a residential adviser for a freshman dorm, she was also very well informed about the support systems in place for coping with the mental and physical health of students. Her enthusiasm for Brown was infectious.

The Brown campus itself is compact and seems to have a decent population concentration—neither dead nor swarming with people, and students seemed happy to be there.  We saw a lot of students studying from books, though this may have been an artifact of shopping-for-classes deadline coming up, as students were trying to make up their minds which courses to take.  Shopping for courses is common on many campuses, but Brown is the first we’ve seen that actively encourages it (UCSC used to before all the budget cuts combined with growth in student numbers made many of the classes fill up, so that shopping was no longer feasible for many courses).

Despite the number of students we saw studying, we heard a lot more about partying and extra-curricular student life at Brown than at some of the other campuses we visited.  We got the impression that students didn’t work quite so hard at their studies as at places like Caltech and Harvey Mudd.

For some subjects, I’d worry about the recent growth of graduate research institutes in the Jewelry District separate from the rest of campus—it is just far enough away that the faculty and grad students there would come to the main part of campus only when they had to, depriving undergrads of the valuable random encounters that a compact campus fosters.  So far, it seems to be mainly medical labs and facilities that are growing in the Jewelry District—a field that does not (currently) interest my son, so the loss of compactness will not affect him much.  We did like that the sports facilities were not central to campus but were off on the northeast corner—far enough from the heart of campus that they weren’t even part of the tour.

One very minor negative about Brown that we got from the campus map—we found two typos on our casual perusal of the map, indicating a certain lack of care in preparing the map (“comparative literature” was spelled wrong and Verney-Woolley dining is listed as being in the Fitness Center—while the map clearly places it where our tour guide said, at Woolley Hall).

After the tour, Brown University moved way up on his list, just behind Harvey Mudd and Stanford.


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