Gas station without pumps

2014 July 28

UCSB orientation

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Last week I finally had an opportunity to visit UCSB, where my son will be going to college in the Fall.  This college visit was a bit different from other ones we did together, as he had already filed his statement of intent to register (in UC jargon, the “SIR”).  So we were not deciding whether UCSB was a good place to apply, or whether to accept an admissions offer—this was an orientation session for new freshmen and their parents.

Because we don’t drive, and the Santa Barbara airport is very expensive to fly to from anywhere but LA (and somewhat expensive even from LA), we took Amtrak to Santa Barbara.  There are multiple ways to get from Santa Cruz to UCSB by train, but we took the simplest and most familiar: Highway 17 express to San Jose ($5), Coast Starlight to Santa Barbara ($51, but the price is higher if you don’t buy the tickets far enough ahead of time), MTD bus 11 to UCSB ($1.75).  (Note: the number 11 bus is not as fast as the 24X or 15X express bus, but those don’t run on Sundays, which is when we were going to Santa Barbara.  The Coast Starlight is a rather slow train, and there are bus+train combinations that are faster, but both my son and I tend to get motion sick on buses, so we preferred the train.  One could take the Greyhound to Santa Barbara for only $37, but that is about 6 hours on the bus.  One could also take Greyhound to Salinas ($12), then Amtrak 4740 bus to San Luis Obispo and the Pacific Surfliner to Goleta ($42), and MTD bus 15X  (or walk a mile and take the 11 on weekends) to UCSB ($1.75).  One could also take the Coast Starlight from Salinas to Santa Barbara ($12+$39+$1.75), reducing the bus time to the same as taking the Highway 17 express, and the bus to Salinas is probably less of a roller-coaster ride than the bus to San Jose.  The connections are not tight, so no time is saved by catching the train in Salinas—the extra time is spent waiting at the Amtrak station in Salinas.

Because it was a two-day orientation, they put us up (separately) in dorms for the intervening night.  Because we were using Amtrak to get to Santa Barbara, we needed an extra night before and after, which we also spent in a (different) dorm, managed as the UCSB Summer Inn.  All the dorms were in Manzanita Village, which is the dorm complex my son has requested.  The dorms were spacious with lots of closet space, but a bit too warm—a fan would be a useful addition to the fall dorm supplies.  The mattresses were also a bit too firm for my taste—my son may want to get a softer foam pad to put on top of the mattress.

Bus service for UCSB is not bad on weekdays, but is a bit skimpy on weekends.  Even at its best, it is not as frequent as UCSC bus service. Of course, the UCSB campus is more compact than the UCSC campus, and UCSB students mostly live on campus or a short walk away from campus in Isla Vista, so bus service is not as necessary.  Also, the UCSB campus and surrounding area is flat, so bicycling is very easy (even with the low-efficiency “beach cruisers” that southern California finds fashionable).

UCSB seems to take bicycling fairly seriously in terms of infrastructure.  There are no roads through campus, but there is a major bikeway and lots of bike parking:

UCSB has bike paths on which bicyclists have priority over pedestrians, and traffic is heavy enough during the school year that they found it useful to put roundabouts at a couple of the major intersections of bike paths.

UCSB has bike paths on which bicyclists have priority over pedestrians, and traffic is heavy enough during the school year that they found it useful to put roundabouts at a couple of the major intersections of bike paths.

Bikes have the right of way on the paths, and (unlike roads) the pedestrian crosswalks do not give the pedestrians right of way.  There are warnings and textured strips to caution the pedestrians.  Bicyclists are expected to walk their bikes when on the pedestrian paths (with frequent warnings about heavy fines), but this rule seems to be routinely ignored.

Bikes have the right of way on the paths, and (unlike roads) the pedestrian crosswalks do not give the pedestrians right of way. There are warnings and textured strips to caution the pedestrians. Bicyclists are expected to walk their bikes when on the pedestrian paths (with frequent warnings about heavy fines), but this rule seems to be routinely ignored.

There is even a separate skateboard lane on one of the main campus paths (taking up part of a wide walkway and paralleling a divided bike path).

There is even a separate skateboard lane on one of the main campus paths (taking up part of a wide walkway and paralleling a divided bike path).

Bike parking is copious, often with seas of bike parking near classroom buildings.

Bike parking is copious, often with seas of bike parking near classroom buildings.

Most of the bike parking is of a style that alternates high and low, intended for allowing tight packing of the bikes without handlebars interfering.  There is an adequate locking point for the frame, but not for the rear wheel.

Most of the bike parking is of a style that alternates high and low, intended for allowing tight packing of the bikes without handlebars interfering. There is an adequate locking point for the frame, but not for the rear wheel.

In a couple of places, the "low" version of the bike parking is installed diagonally, where there is not sufficient space for the bikes to be perpendicular.  This view shows the locking loop beside the wheel-holder clearly.

In a couple of places, the “low” version of the bike parking is installed diagonally, where there is not sufficient space for the bikes to be perpendicular. This view shows the locking loop beside the wheel-holder clearly.

In a few places, UCSB has wheel-bender racks that provide neither support for the bikes nor adequate locking points—these were clearly selected by someone who did not park a bicycle.

In a few places, UCSB has wheel-bender racks that provide neither support for the bikes nor adequate locking points—these were clearly selected by someone who did not park a bicycle.

Although the campus is compact and easy to navigate in, it is not small. A walk from the dorms my son hopes to stay in (Manzanita village) to the College of Engineering (where many of the faculty he might do research with have offices) is about a mile. Given the distances, the flat terrain, and the mild weather, bicycling is probably the best way to get around campus.

I saw a number of cyclists at UCSB, but very few wearing helmets. We were warned that even experienced bicyclists should probably avoid cycling on campus for the first two weeks of Fall quarter, as there were a lot of bike crashes during that period, often caused by new cyclists who did not know what they were doing. It seems that UCSB’s infrastructure efforts are not matched by bike safety education efforts. Bike theft is also a major problem on campus—the suggestion is to get an ugly old bike and use a good lock. There is a sale of abandoned bikes during Welcome Week in the fall, and my son will probably get a bike then, rather than lugging his from home. I think that a 3-speed with front and rear brakes is probably the ideal bike for UCSB conditions—easier to maintain than derailleurs, but more efficient than a one-speed beach cruiser.

UCSB has a few more students than UCSC (22,225 students in Fall 2013 vs. 17,203 at UCSC), and a higher proportion of grad students (12.9% vs. 8.8% at UCSC).  At the orientation, UCSB claimed to have the highest proportion of undergrads of any R1 research university, but they achieved this status only by using a non-standard definition of an R1 university, using the 62 invitation-only members of the Association of American Universities, rather than the 108 “RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)” in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is the more commonly used definition of “R1 university”.  UCSC is on that bigger list, and probably does deserve the status of the R1 university with the highest ratio of undergrads, which UCSB was improperly claiming.

Although UCSB has only 23.4% more undergrads than UCSC, they have a few much larger class sizes.  They have several lecture halls seating 300 or more students (Campbell Hall @ 860, Isla Vista Theater 1 @529, Lotte Lehman Concert Hall @468, Chem 1179 @354, Buchanan 1910 @306).  UCSC has 3 classrooms with 300 or more and none over 500 (Classroom Unit 2 @472, Media Theater @382, and Humanities 3 Rm 206 @301).  Unless he changes his schedule, my son will have a class in Campbell Hall in the fall: Linear Algebra.  His other classes will be tiny, all being College of Creative Studies computer science classes for freshmen, so having 10–20 students.  I’ve been suggesting to him that he delay linear algebra by a quarter or two, so that he can take the CCS physics series with the CCS physics majors.  It isn’t clear that they’ll allow him to do that, but he neglected to tell his computer science adviser that he was interested, and the CCS physics adviser was not around to talk to, so he’ll have to ask about that by e-mail, if he decides to try it.

The orientation was carefully designed to separate students from the parents, with the students talking with advisers and with other students, and the faculty hearing from administrators (and a few students).  There were a few combined sessions for students and parents, but not many (campus tour, welcome assembly, half the College of Creative Studies meeting, an Education Abroad Program presentation).  Supposedly we could eat meals together, but my son managed to make friends with a few of the other CCS students, so he had both lunches and the Monday dinner with them—I only ate with him for the Tuesday breakfast.  Incidentally, the dining hall had fairly good food—better than any of the other campus dining halls we’ve eaten at—and we were told by students that this was not a special “for the parents” thing, but that the dining hall food was routinely that varied and that good.

Most of the presentations had very little new content for me, as they were aimed mainly at parents who had not been to college (UCSB, like all the UCs, takes pride in what a large proportion of their students are the first in their families to attend college).  I did pick up a few tidbits of useful information, like getting my son to add me to the e-mails about the bills from UCSB, so that I can transfer the funds from the Scholarshare 529 plan without the delay of waiting for him to forward the bills to me.

The meeting with the CCS students and a couple of the CCS faculty was worthwhile, but sending us to the Letters and Sciences panel discussion afterwards was a waste of time—I would rather have had a chance to hear from the engineering faculty or students.

The only really good presentation was the “Packing, Prepping, and Parting” presentation for parents Monday night.  It was very entertaining, but made the strong assumption that all students would come by car.  Since packing and prepping are even more challenging for those coming by plane, bus, or train, it would have been useful to spend a little time on that. There was a brief mention of the Amtrak station in Goleta (which serves the Pacific Surfliner only, not the Coast Starlight) and no mention that MTD bus service to the train stations is limited on weekends (the move-in days), since the 15X doesn’t run on weekends.

The presentation “your student’s first year” was so generic as to be useless.  I was also rather surprised to see some copyrighted cartoons copied off the web without permission (the watermarks to show that these were unlicensed were still clearly visible).  UCSB is not so poor that they need to steal intellectual property from cartoonists, and it sends a very bad message to students about plagiarism and intellectual property to be so cavalier about copyright in an official university presentation.

The EAP (education abroad program) was one of 7 “co-curricular workshops” that we could choose among to attend together, none of which sounded very interesting.  My son fell asleep during it and I nearly did—they could have provided a lot more content in a much less boring presentation.

The Tuesday afternoon was dedicated to registering for classes, but the CCS students got that done early, so we had the afternoon to wander around campus, taking our own tour of the science and engineering buildings, which had only been pointed out as being “over there” in the general campus tour.  We did not go down to the beach, though that might have been a pleasant option to cool off.  We rarely get to the beach in Santa Cruz either—it is not big on our list of fun things to do.

On Sunday night and Tuesday night we ate in Isla Vista.  We had Indian food at Naan Stop Sunday night and Vietnamese food at Pho Bistro Tuesday night.  Both were adequate of their kind and clearly local rather than chains.  Isla Vista has about 30 eateries, all of “college student” styles, so there are places to go if the dorm food gets too repetitive, though the variety is somewhat limited.  Isla Vista does not have much else in the way of retail—students are expected to go 2 ½ miles to Kmart, Costco, Home Depot, and other shopping-center stores in Goleta for anything other than convenience store or bike store stuff.

Overall, my impression of UCSB is that it will be a good place for my son to go to school.  The CCS program gives him some small classes, good access to research opportunities, very flexible general-ed requirements, and an easy way to meet fellow geeks. He’ll have to put up with a few large classes (like linear algebra), but he’ll be past them fairly quickly if he makes good choices. The campus is well set up for bicycling, and it is not overly influenced by fraternity or sports culture (though both are more accessible than at UCSC).  The culture is a little more “southern California” than he is used to, but I don’t know if he’ll even notice the difference, other than the greater exposure of skin, which is driven more by the climate than by the culture.


2013 September 12

Olin College of Engineering tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:56
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Today (Thursday 12 Sept 2013) we toured the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

Olin is a very new school, with the first class of freshmen entering in Fall 2002. It is still a very small school with only 350 students—smaller than most high schools.  The college made a big splash in the engineering world when it started, because of very good marketing and because of the hands-on approach they are taking to teaching engineering.

The hands-on, project-based approach was very appealing to my son, who has learned most of his science and engineering (particularly CS) that way.  He’s done some group projects, but mostly he’s been working on his own or been the lead engineer on the projects he’s been part of, so he liked the idea of being part of a team with other good engineering students.

We started out the day walking around campus—literally.  The campus is small enough that you can circumnavigate all the buildings in about 10 minutes.  (There is a large wooded area that is somewhat swampy that we did not visit.)  The Olin campus is small, but the student population is so small that the campus felt deserted—even more so than the Caltech campus did.

After checking in at the admissions office, we went to sit in on the one computer class he could attend today: ENGR 3410, Computer Architecture (known to the students as CompArch).  The “3” digit at the beginning indicates that this is considered a junior-level course, though the equivalent at other engineering schools would be a sophomore-level course.  The difference in levels is partly from the required design courses taken by all freshmen and sophomores, which delay more field-specific courses by about a year.  The class we saw was well taught—the teacher has 2 sections of the course with about 20 in each, which allowed a fair amount of student activity in the class (mainly board work in pairs or larger groups interspersed with short lectures to prepare students for the next round of board work).  The material was a bit dull (number systems), but appropriate for early in the semester of a computer architecture class. Forty students taking CompArch means that about half the Olin students end up taking this course.

There were two other computer courses today (ENGR 3520,Foundations of Computer Science and ENGR 3599 Special Topics in Computing: Computer Networks), but they conflicted with the info session and tour that he had signed up for.  There are only 4 computer courses in total this semester—not a lot of variety to choose from.

We had lunch at the Olin dining hall, which was mediocre dining-hall fare by Sodexo.  (UCSC used to contract with Sodexo, but the quality was so low that students got the university to terminate the contract—the dining hall food quality rose substantially after UCSC started running the dining halls themselves.)  Because Olin is about 1.5 miles from any restaurants, the staff and faculty each lunch in the dining hall also. This situation is different from Harvey Mudd College, where the faculty and staff eat in the dining hall despite nearby restaurants—at Olin there is little alternative.  I’ve been told that some students go to Babson next door for a change (they can use the Babson dining halls on the same meal plan), but supposedly the dining halls at Babson have even worse food.  Almost everyone at the Olin dining hall was eating with others—like at Harvey Mudd, they seem to have done a good job of getting students to eat together.

After lunch we had an information session and tour, each lasting an hour.  We were the only family in either one—the smallest tour we’ve had yet.  The tour guide gave us a lot of information, but he did seem to repeat himself a fair amount.  It must be difficult giving a one-hour tour of such a tiny campus.  We did not see a dorm room, but we did see a dorm kitchen, which is exactly the same size as one of the dorm rooms.  As might be expected from such a recently built campus, the dorm rooms are fairly large and all the facilities in excellent condition.  Olin makes a big deal out of student involvement in improving the campus, so a lot of the things we were shown were prefaced by remarks about how students had decided they wanted x, and got the funding from the college to do it themselves.  That’s a nice approach—particularly on a brand-new campus, but I don’t know how long the college will have the space and the funding to support student initiatives. I don’t think that they’ll run short in the next four years though.

Olin seems to be preparing engineers primarily for industry—only about 35% go on to grad school.  One of the bigger recruiters on campus is Microsoft, and students are provided with a Windows laptop when they first register on campus, loaded with lots of software useful to mechanical engineers (but not much for CS students).  Based on what we saw of the design labs and project labs, Olin looks like a great place to do undergrad studies in mechanical engineering and materials science, but not so great for computer science and computer engineering.  They had just enough computer engineering to be able to do robotics, but not much depth past that.

We had dinner in the dining hall with a couple of Olin students, including one from FWOP (Franklin W. Olin Players), the main theater club on campus.  They do a couple of plays a year, plus a few shorter one-act productions.  Students can also do theater at Babson and Wellesley colleges—male actors are particularly in demand for Wellesley productions, because Wellesley College is still an all-female college.  Overall, it sounded like there was plenty of opportunity for acting at Olin—not as many options as at Brown, but fewer students competing for the parts available.

The big plus for Olin, project-based curriculum, was offset by the small, isolated campus and lack of depth in computer science. Overall, my son rated Olin fairly low on his list, along with Caltech.  Both would be great schools for some students, and he could do reasonably well at either one, but they did not seem like as good a fit as schools higher on his list.

Update 2013 Sept 14: I forgot to mention of Olin’s big pluses: the final admissions decisions are made by faculty, not non-academic staff.  This means that applications to Olin can include technical material that most admissions officers would just be mystified by.

This is probably the last college tour we’ll do this fall. He may apply to some colleges that we haven’t toured yet, but visit only if he is accepted at them.

2013 September 10

MIT tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:53
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Tuesday, we toured MIT, a school I’ve always been impressed by, both for the reputed intensity of its students and the research that comes out of MIT.

Before the tour we attended an information session in room 35-225.  At MIT, everything is given a number, rather than a name (majors, courses, and buildings)—it is part of how MIT creates a culture of insiders and outsiders.  So 35-255 means room 255 in building 35 (we started in the Admissions office, better known as 10-100).  Room 35-255 turned out to be a very run-down lecture hall with paint peeling off the ceiling, and an impressive tangle of power cords and data cables hanging off the back of the podium (including parts that were clearly intended to be fastened to a solid surface, not hanging by a wire).  The lecture hall has a very steep rake, so that everyone can see over the person in front of them, but even from the second row, the speaker looked like he was a long way away, at the bottom of a deep well.  There was a class scheduled in the room right after our information session, so I know that this wasn’t a mothballed room pulled into service for information sessions, but an active classroom.

One thing that MIT did that no other college has done so far was to provide a customized welcome letter for my son, providing information about the three subjects that he had expressed the most interest in when he signed up for the info session.  It was a simple template-based letter, just putting in three paragraphs from the form he filled out, but no other campus has shown that level of care in the recruiting.  This gesture almost made up for the very rundown teaching facilities—but the admissions process doesn’t last long, and the teaching facilities have to be lived with for 4 years.

Another handout they gave us was a “Facts for Freshmen” data sheet, and this one undid the good impression of the customized welcome letter. They used a number of tricks to disguise and distort data:

  • putting 4,384 undergraduate students in a huge font and 6,510 graduate students in a tiny font to make it look like the undergraduates dominate the graduates.
  • having the “area” mistake, where triangles were used to show percentages of students from each geographic area, but the heights of the triangles were proportional to the percentage, rather than the areas being proportional to percentage.  I guess their graphic designer never read any of Tufte’s books.  Oh, wait—Tufte is from Yale, and maybe people from MIT don’t read stuff from Yale.
  • total financial aid is reported as $31,232 per year, but they don’t say on this sheet that loans are included in that figure.  If you take the total scholarships ($8.9M) and divide by the number of students (4,384), you get an average scholarship of $20k—a lot less than the $31k they misleadingly report.

The MIT information session was reasonably informative, though the speaker (an admissions officer) spent far too much time talking about athletics at MIT.  One positive point was the amount of time he talked about the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which students can participate in from the beginning of their MIT careers.  About 85% of students participate and most are paid for their research work (it wasn’t clear whether students coming up with their own projects got paid, or only those working on funded research for faculty).  A lot of really cool research is done at MIT, and being part of one of the better projects may be a wonderful experience.  There is certainly a strong expectation that students will do research and hands-on projects, and not just book learning, matching what is claimed in the MIT motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand).

At the end of the session I asked one rather pointed, even rude, question: “I’ve heard a lot about how stressful MIT can be—how does the suicide rate compare with other selective colleges?”  I had a personal reason for concern about this—my best friend from high school committed suicide at MIT in the spring of his sophomore year.  I also have seen some figures suggesting that MIT had a much higher suicide rate than other schools, though those are old figures for 1990–2001, and may no longer be representative.  The answer I got was not very reassuring—they have a lot of support mechanisms in place (though the only ones mentioned were studying together and support services that could be called) and their rate is not really higher than comparable institutions (a claim I’ve not been able to justify or refute online, though what little I’ve been able to find does suggest that the rate has dropped to a more normal 7/100,000/year).  I would have been more reassured if they had said “we had a problem in 2000 and 2001, and took a lot of steps to address it—since then our rate has been x, comparable to a rate of y at other selective schools”.  They are still saying  to the press that male engineering students are more likely to commit suicide than other students (ref), which is not reassuring to the parent of a male student likely to be studying engineering.

Our MIT tour guide was reasonably well-informed and audible, giving us a few factoids we did not previously know (how much the copper roof of Kresge Auditorium weighs and how the car-on-the-roof hack was managed), but we spent far too much time in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center talking about athletics.  He had some interesting information about the buildings, including the incompetent design of the Green Building by I.M. Pei.  He talked about the good acoustics of the Chapel, but not the abysmal acoustics of the Kresge Auditorium.  He did not, however, talk much about academics at MIT, other than a couple of pro forma speeches about the gen-ed requirements, and a fairly good description of UROP research opportunities.

I looked at the CS requirements for the 6-3 program and combined gen-ed/CS requirements, and it looks like a fairly rigid, formulaic program, with very few electives until senior year (choice of 3 core courses—out of the 3 offered, choice of 3 header courses—out of the 3 offered, and so forth).  The MIT program seems to be guaranteeing quality by making sure that everyone has taken the same courses and not missed anything, with just a little customization in the senior year—rather the opposite of Brown University’s philosophy of every student creating their own unique path.

The population density of MIT seemed reasonable when the sun was shining, but when it started sprinkling, everyone headed inside and the corridors became packed with students and faculty trying to get from one building to another without going outside. It was like the mad scramble to get from one class to another in a big mid-western high school, but with clear rules (explained to us clueless tourists many times) about staying to the right in all corridors. My son has not experienced crowded corridors much before (most California classroom doors open directly to the outside), so the little sprinkle of rain we got today was good for giving him a more representative view of MIT.

At lunch in the CS building (32G), I noticed that a lot of people were eating in groups, but a lot of people were sitting alone, and that no one approached them, even when there were no empty tables left.  It might be hard for a shy person to make friends at MIT, given the general unwillingness to disturb anyone who seemed to be by themselves.

Overall, my son had a reasonably favorable impression of MIT, putting it in an equivalence class with CMU and UCB.  All three are research powerhouses that are somewhat dominated by the grad programs.  Personally, I thought that of the three, MIT did the most to include undergrads in research and UCB did the least, but that the UCB campus was the nicest environment and MIT the least pleasant.  He put all three lower on his list than Harvey Mudd, Stanford, and Brown, though he has not yet articulated exactly why he ranks the schools the way he does.

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.


2013 September 6

CMU college tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:44
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My son and I went on a prospective-students’ tour of Carnegie-Mellon today.  CMU is high on his list, because of their great reputation in computer science research, and because a lot of their undergrads go on to earn CS PhDs.

The tours today were a bit disappointing.

One problem was that CMU doesn’t do information sessions this time of year, so we did not get to talk to any admissions officers. Actually, that’s not quite true—I spoke on the phone with one for about a minute, because I asked the receptionist at the admissions office about the line on their website directing home-school applicants to fill out the “home school supplement” of the Common App, which has been eliminated this year.  Colleges were informed of this change last spring, but CMU couldn’t be bothered to fix their web site.  They even printed up new brochures with the out-of-date information.  The admissions officer I spoke with on the phone knew of the change and said that we should just fill out the Common App, but he did not seem at all perturbed that CMU was coming across as being unable to adapt to change (I didn’t say that to him—but I sure thought it).  They seem to have fixed the page after I talked to them, though, as that erroneous information is gone from their undergraduate admissions requirements page, though the Google cache still has the old version (it’ll probably be fixed in a day or two, when the Google spider next crawls the site).  So it seems that Admissions can learn from their mistakes, at least if someone points them out to them.

The tours themselves were lead by cheerful students (all female), but were curiously lacking in content.  Although CMU is strongly a tech school, we had a creative writer, a journalist, and a biologist as guides (no engineers or computer scientists).  Essentially nothing was said about academics (the creative writer mentioned the availability of tutors in the dorms, which she had really needed to get through beginning calculus).  We did not see any classrooms on the tour, though they did mention that the biggest classroom on campus only seated 200 or 250 (I forget which).  The tour guides did talk a little about athletics on campus, but since CMU is a division 3 school (which means no athletic scholarships) it is clear that it is not a sports-mad campus (unlike say, UCLA and UC Berkeley, whose highest-paid staff are head coaches).

The tours reminded us a bit of the UC Berkeley tours—touching a little on everything, but not providing much substance on anything.  We went through a number of buildings, which have more diversity on the insides than the yellow-brick exteriors suggest.  The contrast between the soulless mediocrity of the business building and the impressive fine arts building was particularly striking—and showing us that contrast seemed to be the only reason for setting foot in the business building.

They did not take us into the Gates Building (where computer science is), probably for fear of getting lost—the floors don’t line up and the entrances and exits are on the 4th and 5th floors with bridges to other buildings.  Overall, the interior of the CS and engineering parts of the CMU campus seem to be deliberately designed to be a maze.  They obviously don’t take fire safety very seriously, as exit signs point to staircases, then don’t give any indication in the staircase whether you have to go up or down the stairs to get out.  (Exits are more likely to be on the 5th floor than the 1st, because of building below ground and into the sides of ravines.)

There was a lot of information about student projects posted on the walls at CMU (unlike UCB, where projects seem to be kept in strict secrecy, even from the students), and it seems like undergrad students do get involved in some interesting things, but there was nothing that told us what fraction of the undergrads did these interesting projects.  Was it everyone (like at Harvey Mudd)? most students (like at Stanford)? those who really wanted to (like at UCB)? or only a very rare lucky few (like at UCLA)?

We did notice a lot of students studying at CMU, both individually and in groups—since this is the beginning of the school year for them, it seems that the classes ramp up fairly quickly.  We didn’t see many hard-copy books, though, so perhaps people weren’t studying, but just staring at their computer screens to avoid talking to people.

The campus seems appropriately busy—not a ghost town like Caltech and not a pullulating mass of humanity like UCLA.  The campus is surprisingly spacious for an urban campus, and the proximity to University of Pittsburgh (a much larger school) makes for a huge college town neighborhood, with many mediocre eateries and beer halls.  We did manage to find a pretty good place to have dinner (Spice Island Tea House), but the food in that part of Pittsburgh does not seem to have the diversity of Berkeley (few places in the US do).  Still the neighborhood is much better than the area of Los Angeles that USC is in, so all the emphasis in the tour about the safety of campus seemed a bit like overkill—I guess that they are trying to reassure people from suburbs that being in a city is not as terrible as their imaginations paint it.

The emphasis on safety through limiting access made it pretty clear than CMU does not have an honor code system like Harvey Mudd’s, where the students are trusted with 24-hour access to labs and machine shops (after passing safety training).

The demographics of the CS students seemed a lot like the demographics of the CS students at UC Berkeley, but not much like the demographics of the rest of campus. We noticed a lot more male students than female students around the Gates Building, and a lot of the study groups were all Chinese students (I wasn’t close enough to hear whether they were speaking Chinese or English, and I don’t know whether they were foreign students or Chinese-Americans).  The male/female imbalance of CS departments is common across the country, so CMU is not unusual in that respect.

So far, only two of the tours we’ve been on (Stanford’s and Harvey Mudd’s) seem to have been intended to attract computer science or engineering students.  Those are the only tours that have shown use the machine shops for building student projects and talked about what courses engineering students take and how students get involved in faculty research projects or start their own (including starting their own companies—a real obsession at Stanford).  I don’t know whether this is because the other campuses don’t want engineering students to apply, or whether their admissions departments don’t know enough about engineers to know what would be attractive to them.

My son and I think that he could do well at CMU, and that there are enough exciting projects going on that he could find something to work on, but the tour did not lead to the same level of excitement for him that Harvey Mudd did.

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