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2014 April 26


Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:33
Tags: , , , ,

Some readers of my blog and e-mail posts have been asking where my son will be going to college.

He filed his “Statement of Intent to Register” (SIR in UC jargon) and paid the deposit for University of California, Santa Barbara.

This post is a partial explanation of why he chose UCSB. I’m somewhat constrained, as I’ve been asked not to detail precisely where he did and did not get accepted. Suffice it to say that the number of acceptances was not different enough from the expected number to reject the null hypothesis that acceptances are random based on the probabilities inferred from the Common Data Set.  (Of course, with a sample size of one, that is not a very strong statement.)

As a family, we’re all pretty happy with UCSB as a choice, despite its reputation as a party school, the conservative community, and the difficulty of reaching it by air from northern California. What sold him on UCSB was the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which seems to be the best honors program in the UC system.

His major will be computer science, but it will be computer science in CCS, rather than computer science in engineering. What this means is that he basically crafts his own degree together with a faculty adviser. In his first quarter, he’ll take a special CCS freshman seminar with the other 10 or so CCS computer science freshmen, during which the instructor will try to assess the current level of expertise of each student and fill any holes they have in their prior learning, to place them in the right CS courses in future quarters.  The class is tiny (usually around 10 students) so the instructor doesn’t have to do one-size-fits-all teaching or advising. Because my son has already had UC-level applied discrete math (through concurrent enrollment at UCSC), he’ll be able to take upper-division courses like formal languages and automata theory right away. In fact, I suspect that he’ll end up skipping almost all the lower-division courses in CS.  He may end up opting to take some of them for review, or so that he’ll have an easy course on his schedule so that he has more time for research or acting, but he won’t be forced into huge lecture classes that have nothing new for him in them.

I looked over the lower-division (first two years) of CS at UCSB and it looks like my son has covered almost all of it already. He’s had several different programming languages (Scratch, C, Scheme, Python, Java, with bits of C++, JavaScript, Logo, assembly language), though he is most proficient now with object-oriented code in Python. One course (CMPSC 56) may have a little new material on exception handling and threading, and he might choose to take something like that to formalize his knowledge—when one learns a subject by reading reference manuals to do particular programming tasks there are sometimes unexpected holes in what you learn.  He’s done a fair amount with threading in Python, but not a lot with exception handling. CMPSC 64, on computer architecture and digital logic also has some new material for him.  The computer architecture will seem fairly simple to him after how deeply he’s been diving into the KL25 ARM Cortex M0+ architecture for programming both PteroDAQ and the light gloves, but some of the combinational and sequential hardware design will new.

One strong plus is that he’ll be able to join a research team his first year—CCS makes a concerted effort to get their students into research groups (in fact, one faculty member he met with when visiting UCSB has already tried to recruit him to a project). The UCSB computer science department is pretty good (their website claims top 10 for grad programs, but even allowing for hype they are probably in the top 20), and the department is fairly large with 32 tenure-track faculty, so there are a lot of different research projects he could join.  Computer engineering is lumped with EE in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, so there are more faculty and more research projects he could join there.

Another plus of the CCS program is a relaxing of the often bureaucratic nit-picking of general-education requirements. The CCS general-ed requirements are

  1. two courses in fields related to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with a CCS advisor;
  2. eight courses broadly distributed in fields unrelated to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with the advisor. These may be selected from courses offered by the College of Creative Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Engineering.

One of these courses must fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement: a course that concentrates on the intellectual, social and cultural experience, and history of one of the following groups: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian-Americans. This course may be selected from a list of courses that fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement offered through the College of Letters and Science, or it may be a College of Creative Studies course that is classified as such.

Students also have to satisfy UC-wide requirements:

The reduction in bureaucratic bean counting means that he can probably satisfy all his general-ed requirements with fun courses in theater, linguistics, physics, math, and so forth.  The only rather arbitrary course is the Ethnicity Requirement, and he can satisfy that with any of several courses, including some theater ones.

One minor problem (shared by almost every college he applied to) is that he gets little relevant credit for his Advanced Placement exams. He’ll probably get 18 credits toward graduation (out of the 180 needed to graduate), but not all the units count towards his major requirements. He gets full credit for the calculus BC, but physics gives only useless non-STEM physics credit for the Physics C exams, the AP CS exam credit is pretty useless, and I’m not sure about chemistry (the page says “Natural Science 1B”, but there does not seem to be such a course—if they mean “CHEM 1B”, then it is useful credit towards his science requirements, assuming he does well enough on the exam in 2 weeks).  Because he is interested in taking some modern physics (quantum mechanics), he’ll probably end up either retaking calculus-based physics or talking his way into the more advanced courses and bypassing the huge lecture courses.

He should also get transfer credit for the community college Spanish courses and the UCSC math courses he has, which could mean another 16–18 credits.  These extra credits will not significantly speed his graduation, but they may give him the flexibility to avoid taking a heavy load some quarter, or to take an internship or study-abroad opportunity without falling behind. One normal benefit to having more credits is getting registration priority, but he already gets that as a CCS student, so that is less of a benefit for him than for others.

One little bonus for us as parents—UCSB is substantially cheaper than the private schools he also applied to, and we have saved enough in his 529 plan that we won’t need to take out any loans and he won’t have to work a meaningless job—he can spend his spare time doing research projects at the University or working on engineering projects for the startup company he and his friends are forming.


  1. Congratulations to your son. He certainly earned it. After you spent so much time on AP test-related material and saw the payoffs with respect to college admissions and credits, I’m wondering what your thoughts (and you son’s thoughts) are now about the value of it all. In particular, I’m wondering about the relative value of working toward AP test scores vs. working on personal projects. For example, do AP Calc but instead of also spending time studying Java and preparing (school class, homeschool class, or private study) for an AP CS test, do a machine learning project in something like Go that he is more interested in; instead of US or World History AP test prep, do a serious family history research project involving finding and using primary documents (parish registers, land deeds, census, etc.); or instead of preparing for any two AP tests, create and run his own startup company.

    I can’t help wondering how much time a STEMmy kid should spend on AP test preparation to qualify for the admissions lottery and how much gives you no further benefit except for the actual learning itself, in which case you would be better off putting that portion of the time into alternative projects that were even more valuable as learning experiences.

    Comment by Glen — 2014 April 27 @ 00:49 | Reply

    • The Art of Problem Solving calculus class was not designed around the AP test (it covers some rather different material), and he took it because he wanted to learn calculus and because he liked the AoPS teaching style. The same was true for the Java class from AoPS—he’d already done some machine learning before taking Java and decided that it was more useful for him at the moment to pick up another commonly used programming language than to do more machine learning. The Java class was really too easy for him, so he expanded each of the assignments to make it more interesting, for himself and for the grader. Even so, it did not take much of his time.

      Physics we did together, and it was again not based on an AP curriculum, but the Matter and Interactions textbook, which emphasizes computer simulation of physics (at least for the mechanics part).

      About the only AP class he has taken that he was not particularly interested in was the Chem class this year—and that was because one of the schools he was applying to required chemistry in high school (others were satisfied with his having done calculus-based physics and physiology). He didn’t “prepare for AP tests”—I agree that would have been a waste of his time. He learned calculus, physics, Java, and chemistry, after which taking the tests to convince others that he’d learned the material was only a few more hours.

      He would have hated a “family history research project”, so we did world history around a spine of history of science. He didn’t take the AP tests in history, but took the SAT 2 tests to satisfy the UC a–g requirements. It turns out that the US history SAT 2 scores satisfies one of the more irritating of the UC general-ed requirements, so he’s glad he took the test. Additional prep for the World History and US History SAT 2 tests consisted only of re-reading Larry Gonnick’s Cartoon Guides, which he might have done for fun anyway.

      These classes did not prevent him from doing projects he was more interested in.

      He has been working about 20 hours a week this year as chief engineer for a startup company that he and a couple of his friends are founding, Futuristic Lights, designing the Infinity Gloves. He’s been at the TechRaising all weekend on this project.

      All next week he’s off to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with his dramatic literature class (the 3rd time he’s gone to OSF with that teacher).

      It is quite possible to do interesting projects and still learn enough to do well on standard tests. Of course, it requires a kid who loves to learn, and tailoring material and projects to sustain his interest. Different strategies would probably be needed for a kid who wanted to spend all his time texting, hanging out, and playing sports.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 27 @ 08:31 | Reply

  2. I’m at a non AP school. We got rid of APs because they limited our curriculum and because most of our students were applying to colleges that didn’t accept them for credit. What APs do is show a rigorous course load, which is especially important for students at schools where there aren’t honors courses. While once upon a time, colleges felt that an ap course covered some material and/or prepared students for college level courses, that’s no longer true across the board.

    Congrats to you on settling on a college. It sounds like a good fit!

    Comment by geekymom/Laura — 2014 April 27 @ 05:01 | Reply

    • We’re happy with where he ended up. Only one of the courses he took (AP chem) was specifically designed to be an AP course. For the other APs he took, the AP test was just a way to show that he had learned the material, and to add a deadline to keep things on schedule (which was not entirely successful with the physics we did together—the physics got learned, but the schedule was not kept).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 27 @ 08:34 | Reply

  3. Congrats to your son! It sounds like he’s made a good choice and you all have planned well as a family. I hope he ends up enjoying some of the requirements that force him outside his area of study. That was one of my favorite parts of college – I had a fabulous time taking Physics with pre-meds, for example. They were all stressed, and I was having fun!

    Comment by Suki Wessling — 2014 April 27 @ 09:18 | Reply

    • I’m sure he’ll take a number of courses for fun, because he enjoys learning. But I’m glad that he won’t be forced to take a lot of unfun courses just because someone thinks that they’ll be “good for him”.

      This may sound a bit hypocritical of me, since I have just gotten new bioengineering curricula approved at UCSC that are very rigid with a lot of required courses. Why would I be pleased about my son having very few requirements while imposing a lot on my students? I have a few reasons:

      • Few of the students I deal with are motivated to learn anything. I’d be glad to give free rein to the ones who are, but most are just going through the motions needed to get a job ticket, looking for the lowest effort path to get there.
      • My son will have a lot of requirements related to his major—other than skipping past the ones he’s already learned on his own, he will be doing all the subject-related material required of CS majors, and probably considerably more. My objections are not to relevant requirements, but to ones whose purpose is just to continue general high school education or to provide enrollment support for unpopular classes.
      • In revamping the bioengineering curriculum, I tried hard to remove any courses that were just there because someone thought they ought to be. I focused on the advanced courses that really taught students what they needed, and only added other courses needed to get the students able to take the advanced ones. Of course, creeping prerequitism has resulted in far too many preliminary courses being required, but there is only so much I can do to fight that (I did get several prereqs relaxed in our department).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 27 @ 10:03 | Reply

  4. “He learned calculus, physics, Java, and chemistry, after which taking the tests to convince others that he’d learned the material was only a few more hours.”

    That’s how I did it as a student, and the only way I’d support my kids’ plans. There are some AP tests that require more focused curricula (back in my day, that was the AP English test, which had a lot of poetry analysis on it). But, in general, I wouldn’t be willing to invest much extra energy in satisfying the requirements of the test — but, for a student who doesn’t have special issues with standardized testing, an AP test isn’t a big deal, if the material has been learned. A class or course of study shouldn’t be designed around the test. It’s not worth it if the test doesn’t come as a side effect of study of the material.

    And, to the extent that doing so is necessary for entering the lottery, as we’ve said, it’s a lottery anyway, and not worth sacrificing much to enter.

    Your description of your son and the program he’s entering seems like they’ll make a great fit, with minimum annoying general requirements, opportunities to go deep in areas of interest, and the opportunity to enter a research lab early (which is the absolutely best thing for anyone interest in research).

    Comment by bj — 2014 April 27 @ 10:00 | Reply

  5. Congratulations to him on making a decision. I live in Goleta, so if you or he have any questions about logistics in the area, let me know. We moved here years ago for grad school, so don’t have the experience of being undergraduates here. But, we did live in Isla Vista for a couple years. Will he be living in a dorm or in IV the first year? If he lives in IV, a place farther from the beach should generally be quieter. As far as transportation, I’ve found Amtrak very convenient to points south, so you might look into it for travel from the Bay Area to the Goleta station. It would be an easy bike ride from the Goleta Amtrak station to the university.

    One of UCSB’s strengths is the amount of cross-department collaboration. That culture is evidenced by the CCS. A number of professors have appointments in multiple departments. Also, if he is interested in quantum mechanics, there is some *very* interesting work going on in quantum computing at UCSB. If he is interested, he should look up the faculty involved in the Center for Spintronics and Quantum Computation.

    Also, a bit of CS trivia — UCSB was the 3rd node on ARPANET.

    Comment by Yves — 2014 April 27 @ 20:24 | Reply

    • He has already taken Amtrak to Santa Barbara for the admitted freshmen yield event a couple of weeks ago—it is much cheaper than flying to Santa Barbara from here, and not much slower. It is also a much more civilized way to travel, with ample leg room and the ability to walk around.

      I was not able to go with him (I would have had to miss 2 lectures and a lab in my circuits course), so I’ll probably go with him to a summer orientation session.

      I believe that he has applied to live in Manzanita Village, on the advice of the older CCS students. He’ll definitely be staying in a dorm for the first year or two, since he won’t remember to cook for himself.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 27 @ 22:05 | Reply

      • Does he already have summer plans? If not, he could look at FSSP ( for summer classes or the SIMS program ( through the CNSI for research projects. CSEP has links to several similar programs ( They will probably contact you about FSSP, but not about SIMS.

        Comment by Yves — 2014 May 2 @ 16:29 | Reply

        • For this summer, he has plans that include 6 weeks of theater, summer orientation at UCSB, attending a couple of Santa Cruz Shakespeare performances, and (if we can squeeze it in) visiting his grandfather in Boulder.

          I just looked at the FSSP summer courses, and they do not look like they would be as attractive to him as the summer theater he had already been planning.

          The SIMS program might attract him, and it comes just after the final performance in his summer Shakespeare conservatory, so he might be able to do it (travel time might make it difficult, as the Amtrak train takes all day and most of the plane connections are 4-5 hours, so a Saturday evening to Sunday morning connection is not feasible, but a Sunday evening start might be possible). The application deadline of May 23 is pretty soon, though, especially as he would have to ask for yet another copy of recommendation letters.

          The other programs are worth knowing about but do not require any action before fall quarter, and I image that the College of Creative Studies advisers will be pro-active in connecting the CCS students with the appropriate programs.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 May 2 @ 16:53 | Reply

  6. Congratulations to your son! I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, and was rooting for him!

    Comment by V Johm — 2014 April 28 @ 14:45 | Reply

  7. Congratulations to your son! I’ve also been rooting for him. I’m very glad to hear that he’s found a school with a good fit. We may add UCSB on our list after hearing about their unique programs. It would be wonderful to hear updates on your son’s journey there.

    Comment by Linda — 2014 April 30 @ 10:14 | Reply

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