Gas station without pumps

2013 May 21

Stanford campus tour

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This is another blog post in my series of campus tours looking for a school that will be a good fit for my son.  Today the two of us made a one-day visit to Stanford, to take a couple of the official tours.

Stanford is easier to get to by public transit from Santa Cruz than Berkeley is—we just took the Highway 17 Express to Diridon station in San Jose, then took the Caltrain to Stanford.  We could have been lazy and taken the free Marguerite shuttles to campus, but we decided that the 15-minute walk along Palm Drive was more pleasant.  We left the house around 8:05 a.m. and were at the Science and Engineering Quad by 10:40 a.m.

Since our first appointment was in the Gates Building at 11 (we’d managed to get an appointment with a faculty member, even though the Stanford CS web pages say quite explicitly “Our professors do not meet with prospective students.” []), we stopped for a small snack in Bytes Café, across the street in the Packard Electrical Engineering Building.  It was a pleasant café—all the science and engineering buildings are brand new and seem well designed (quite a change from the engineering buildings I remember from 35 years ago), but I was surprised at how few electrical outlets there were for a café in an EE building, given that almost everyone except us had a laptop open in front of them.

After our snack, we went to see the professor. We didn’t really expect him to be in his office, since we had noted on the class schedule that he had a lecture to give at the time that he had told us he had office hours and could meet with us.  I suspect that he had either confused days or mis-read his schedule.  Sure enough, he wasn’t in his office, so we spent some time looking at all the computer history memorabilia in the lobbies of the Gates Building on each floor—there was some pretty cool stuff there.  After checking the professor’s office once more, we went back over to the Bytes Café, to wait for the Science and Engineering tour at noon.

The Science and Engineering tour started from the Packard building at noon.  We were fortunate enough to get a computer science major as a guide, so could ask about class sizes in CS courses.  CS is an extremely popular major at Stanford, but the class sizes are not as enormous as UCLA’s and UCB’s.  The first class is huge (over 600 students each time and 95% of Stanford students take it), but my son is well past needing that level of instruction, and Stanford seems to be flexible about allowing students to skip prerequisites that they don’t really need.  Upper division courses are much smaller, and the operating systems class that our guide was in has only 30 students.

It seemed pretty evident that undergrads have a fairly easy time getting into research projects and internships, and Silicon Valley companies recruit interns and employees from Stanford aggressively (some pay $25,000 for a booth at Stanford job fairs).  Undergrads are also allowed (even encouraged) to take grad courses, unlike the attitude we heard at UCLA, where the faculty member we talked to did not allow undergrads into his grad course.

The engineering tour went past the Product Realization Labs,  which provide state of the art shop tools to Stanford students that are easily accessible once students have taken an appropriate training course.  Because these labs are brand new and Stanford has money coming out of their ears (they were proud of raising $1 billion from alumni last year), the equipment is very, very nice—much nicer than what Harvey Mudd can provide.  There does not seem to be the same culture of almost everyone in engineering learning to use the shop as at Harvey Mudd, but the opportunity is there and about 1200 students a year take advantage of it.

After the tour we had a quick lunch at Coupa Café (another eatery on the Engineering Quad—we’d been warned that the lines at a third possibility, Ike’s Place, got very long at lunch time).  The food was not exceptional, but the café was pleasant.

We had to hurry across campus to get to the Visitors’ Center, which is inconveniently located near the athletic facilities, for an information session and tour.  The information session was run by an admissions officer, and was perhaps the least informative information session we’ve heard so far.  The presenter stood in front of a huge multiple-monitor screen that just showed a Macintosh screen with some Stanford wallpaper.  It was never used, and appeared to be there just to show off how much money Stanford has, that they could have a wall-sized screen that was not used for anything. The admissions officer basically said that Stanford admissions was very competitive (duh!) and that you had to write essays that were distinctively you (double-duh!).  He had to consult his notes a lot during the presentation and was unable to answer some fairly standard questions (like what the difference in acceptance rate was between early admits and regular admission).  According to the Stanford Common Data Set for 2012, 6.8% of males were admitted and 6.4% of females (the numbers were lower this year, for a 5.7% composite, but the common data set won’t be available until the end of the year), but unlike other schools, Stanford does not provide any statistics on their early action program, so there is no way to tell whether using the early action program is a good idea or not.  It is a somewhat restrictive program (no other private school early action or early decision plan can be applied for), but non-binding.

We had a pretty good tour guide for the general campus tour, who did manage to tell us what we needed to know about the theater program—namely that students from all majors got substantial roles and that lots of students attended the performances, some of which were held in the 1700-seat Memorial Auditorium.  The guide did not act himself, but did go to the plays and had seen the majors listed next to the actors in a recent program. Unfortunately the tour did not go into any buildings on the general tour, and we did not see any classrooms or dorms on either tour (I understand that there is a separate housing tour).

We did notice that the Stanford campus has an appropriate level of people—enough to seem lively and friendly, neither empty like Caltech, nor pullulating masses like at UCLA.  The campus seemed to have a similar feel to the Harvey Mudd campus, but larger, newer, and shinier.  Stanford has certainly been engaging in the amenities wars (and, apparently, winning them).

The tour ended on White Plaza, next to the Stanford Bookstore. We had originally planned to visit the CS Course Advisor, as recommended on the web page that said that the faculty don’t meet with prospective students, but the tour ran a little over and we did not want to run across campus from White Plaza to Gates Hall to catch the tail end of the course adviser’s office hours. (My son did e-mail an apology for not making the office hours once we got home.)

Because we were right by the bookstore, and I remembered the Stanford Bookstore from previous visits to campus as having become a really great bookstore (much better than when I was student there), I suggested that we go in and look around.  Unfortunately, the bookstore has really run downhill since my previous visit.  The books are only a tiny fraction of the space now, and it is mainly a Stanford memorabilia and clothing store.  It has gone from being a great college bookstore to a run-of-the-mill one, only a little better than the pathetic one we have at UCSC.  I was disappointed, but not really surprised—the markup on t-shirts made in international sweatshops is much higher than on academic books (which apparently students don’t buy any more).

We did sit in on a class that the course adviser had suggested in his e-mail.  It had about 50 students in a classroom that would seat about three times that many, and neither the professor nor the TA were there.  The lecture was given by an undergraduate section leader, who did a pretty good job of explaining how operator overloading in C++ is done (though he made a lot of typos in his live demos, and he used a black background with lights shining on the projection screen, so his example text was a little hard to read due to unacceptably low contrast).  My son learned one or two things from the lecture, and decided that he’d be better off learning C++ on his own over the summer, rather than taking such a course.

We decided not to have dinner on campus, but to walk back to the Palo Alto Caltrain station and catch a bullet train to San Jose.  Unfortunately, the trains were all delayed this evening.  We heard alternating announcements every 5 minutes for increased delays for the #268 and #370 trains.  Eventually, the #370 train arrived, but it had been converted from a bullet train to an all-stops train, so it got to San Jose about 42 minutes late (there did not seem to be a #268 train at all, unless it was the one 2–3 minutes behind ours).  The train was full (the main aisle and vestibule were packed with people, though there was plenty of standing room upstairs if you pushed past the people blocking the stairs).  Because we had pushed our way upstairs, we actually got seats around Sunnyvale, as people got off from the upstairs seats.  Most of those who stayed downstairs had to stand the whole way.

Luckily the Highway 17 Express buses are about every 20 minutes during rush hour, so we managed to get home by 8:20pm after leaving Stanford at 5:15pm, despite the Caltrain delays.  If our son went to Stanford (winning the 5% lottery), it would be fairly cheap and easy for him to come home for a weekend if he wanted to—a $20 round trip and about 2.5 hours each way.


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