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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.

2012 May 5

Busy week(s)

My son and I have just finished a busy week, and he has another busy week coming up.

Last weekend (April 28 & 29) he had 3 performances of a “Fringe Show” with his teen acting class. The Fringe show consisted of 13 pieces selected or written by the students.  He was in three pieces: a deadpan rendition of “Sexy and I know it” as if it were an academic lecture (which some audience members told me was the funniest piece in the show), the father in Shel Silverstein’s The Best Daddy (which he also directed), and a non-speaking role as a hallucination in a short play written by one of the other students [Correction: he also had an off-stage voice part in that play].  This performance was just one week after an improv show that he (and several of the other cast members) was also in, so he’s been pretty busy with theater lately. I don’t have pictures from the shows up on his theater page yet—I’ve not had time to select, crop, and edit them.

The fringe show was unusual in that the cast on stage had six male and six female actors—locally there are usually far more girls interested in acting than boys, so the gender parity was notable for its rarity. It was also one of the best teen shows I’ve seen (though West Performing Arts has put on several good teen productions).

Right after the Sunday matinée, we had to hurry home to get a ride to the airport, to fly to Los Angeles for the California State Science Fair.  I already blogged about CSSF this year, and I don’t have much to add.  We missed the awards ceremony on Tuesday, but competition was stiff enough in his category that he didn’t get an award this year anyway.

The reason that we missed the awards ceremony was that we had to catch a plane to Oregon, to join his dramatic literature class’s trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.  I’ll do a separate post on the workshops, plays, and other activities later, when I’m more awake.  Suffice it to say that Wednesday through Friday we had 4 workshops, 4 plays, 4 “prologues”, a couple of meetings with actors, and the 8–9-hour bus ride home.

Today, we caught up a little on sleep in the morning, then spent 3 hours with the robotics club at the Simpkins Swim Center trying to get the underwater ROV to work, because the regional MATE competition is next week.  Tomorrow will be another robotics club meeting, for “dry dock” work on the ROV.  I also have to empty about half my garage, so that the garage door can have its hardware replaced on Wednesday.

Next week he has a return to Spanish class (catching up on the missed week), a meeting with the consultant teacher, 2 AP tests (Calculus BC and Physics C:Mechanics), the last meeting of his dramatic literature class, his home-school physics class, and the MATE underwater ROV competition. I’ll be doing the meeting with the consultant teacher, the physics AP exam, the physics class, and coaching the ROV team, plus an oral exam for a grad student and perhaps a couple of other meetings.

After that, things calm down a little, with him having just Spanish, physics, and finishing up the writing assignments for the dramatic literature class, and me being able to get back to my research.

2012 April 30

California State Science Fair 2012

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:25
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I spent this morning working as a volunteer for the Display Approval Committee for the California State Science Fair.  I did not have to disapprove any posters, though I did ask one student to remove the samples of decaying leaves and compost from his display.

In the afternoon, I looked at some of the high-school posters with my son.  One thing that CSSF did new this year was to have students stand with their posters 3:00–4:30 p.m. for public viewing.  This was great, as it gave the public (including me) a chance to hear some of the spiels.  I mainly listened to kids in the high-school Mathematics and Software category (the category my son is also in).  There were some pretty impressive posters and presentations—the category has become a tough one (like biochem has been for a few years).

I did notice that some projects or topics appeared in different categories.  For example, microbial fuel cells could have ended up in microbiology, chemistry, environmental science, or electricity and electromagnetism.  Bioinformatics projects ended up in either math and software or any of several biology categories.  I think that it would be a good idea for the judges to get together and make some more detailed categorization examples, so that all the microbial fuel cells end up in the same category, for example.

After the public viewing, they had the keynote speech.  For the second year in a row they got an incompetent public speaker, chosen apparently for her connection with the fund-raising arm of the science fair.  Last year they had Gary K. Michelson, who talked like an actor playing the part of a scientist, refusing to talk at all about science.  This year’s speaker, Cheryl Mae Craft, was like a parody of an academic speaker (including the contentless pie chart slides and slides automatically advancing past the point she wanted them to and her unable either to roll them back or recover from the mishap.  This being Los Angeles, one almost suspects that they were hiring out-of-work actors to play the parts of the keynote speakers.

Both years the speakers studiously avoiding talking about science at all (to an audience consisting primarily of students who were passionate about science).  I believe that Dr. Craft had one slide about her science, then told students to look her up on the web.  If Dr. Craft had a beard, she could have been Prof. Smith:

I do remember that a few years ago they had some good keynote speakers, so it isn’t as if CSSF was incapable of finding them.  I suspect that some idiot on the CSSF board selected fund-raising luminaries (without paying attention to whether they could give a good speech), and then hamstrung them by insisting that they not talk about science.

I believe that the audience would have been much better served if  scientists talked about their work and not about vague platitudes.  I’d rather listen to a meaty talk which I only understand a quarter of, than a contentless one like the last two keynotes.  If you want to inspire kids to go into science, don’t put examples of “successful” people who sound as boring as paper pushers and who can’t or won’t talk about science (perhaps they are now purely administrators and don’t do science any more?). It seemed like the keynote speakers were chosen for political payback, not for the benefit of the audience.

It would be better to get an unknown scientist doing exciting work and have them talk about that work as if it were the most exciting thing in the world.  I’m sure that there are hundreds of scientists in LA who could have given a better keynote, and 1000s in California.  Hell, having the winners from the previous year’s science fair talk about their projects would have been much more interesting and inspiring.  That would be a keynote that would inspire kids!

2011 May 4

California State Science Fair judging

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:41
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I just got back today from the California State Science Fair, where my son was an entrant in the senior division (high school) and I was a judge in the junior division (grades 6–8).  [My son did not win prizes at state this year.]

I judged one category in the junior division and was the judge from our category who argued for our project to be “project of the year” for the junior division.  The 22 first-place projects (one from each category) all compete for project of the year, which carries a substantial cash prize ($5k for junior division).  So I spent a couple of hours walking around with the other judges looking at the best project in each category.  There were some really amazing projects, as well as a few that were clearly not in the same league.

The process was a bit rushed (we started at 1:30 and the award ceremony was at 4:00), but each of the judges did a good job of presenting what was great for the 1st place in their category and answering probing questions from the other judges. When we finally started voting on the projects, it was clear that judges were not just voting for their own category, but were seriously looking for the best project.  Each judge had 2 votes in the first round, and many of the projects got 0 votes.  Four projects (including the one from my category!) went to the second round of voting, where judges got one vote.  All four were strong projects that could reasonably have won the overall prize, depending on exactly which qualities of the project one focused on as most important.

I was pleased with the discussion of the judges both in the category judging and in the project of the year judging.  We did not all have exactly the same opinions of projects, but the discussion was based on careful observations and weighing all the relevant criteria.  I heard no hint of irrelevant criteria (such as race, age, gender, wealth, or access to equipment) in either discussion, which has marred some discussions I’ve heard in the past.

Every judging process has some randomness and picking one winner often seems more like a lottery than a purely merit-based system.  I think that the discussion and process was successful in keeping this noise down near the irreducible minimum level.  Had I been judging alone, I likely would have picked somewhat different rankings than the group as a whole, but I was happy to sign off on the consensus decisions as being reasonable ones.

Had there been more time, I think that the project of the year voting should have been done in more rounds: say with 4 votes for each judge, then 2 votes each among the top vote getters, then 2 rounds of one vote each.  One of the top 4 projects would have still come out on top, possibly even the same one, but I would have had more confidence that it wasn’t an artifact of the voting scheme.

If I were to dispense advice to students for future years based on my judging experience, I would say that the following things seem to matter most:

  • Novelty.  Judges like best projects that they’ve never seen before.
  • Thoroughness. Judges like for everything to have been thoroughly tested with proper controls and with alternative explanations and methods ruled out.
  • Student-driven projects.  Judges are always on the lookout for projects that have had too much mentor or parent influence.  Since the judges have limited time with the students, it is important for the student to be very clear about their own contributions to the project (did they write their own programs, design their own experiments, build their own equipment, …) The more of the project that is original with the student, the better.
  • Utility. The science fair is really about engineering and applied science. Pure science projects never seem to win, and projects that have a plausible health or environmental application are rated much more highly than the similar projects without those fields of application.  Adding “greenwash” is not a good idea, though.  Projects that pretend to have health or environmental application, but really don’t, get rather harshly downgraded.
  • Quality work. For software, well-written clean code with documentation gets a lot more attention than spaghetti code.  For hardware, neat construction is worthwhile.
  • Good presentation.  The oral presentation and the poster should be clear and easily understood by someone outside the field. Students should be able to answer clearly and politely both difficult, probing questions by experts and clueless questions by people who don’t seem to know anything.
  • Proper categories. Projects that have been miscategorized are sometimes moved to the correct categories, but if not caught in time, they are judged in the category chosen by the student.  Judges will see the work as being weak in the characteristics they are looking for in the category, even if the project would have been strong in the right category. Gaming the system to try to get into a category with fewer projects is rarely a successful strategy.

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