Gas station without pumps

2013 May 21

Stanford campus tour

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:56
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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.” [http://cs.stanford.edu/degrees/undergrad/HS-FAQ.shtml]), 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.

 

2013 April 30

UC Berkeley college tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:05
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My son and I went on a prospective-students’ tour of UC Berkeley today.  Because the information session and tour was scheduled very early in the day (starting at 9 a.m.), and public transit from Santa Cruz to Berkeley is slow (about 3–3.5 hours, using 3 different transit systems), we actually left last night, shortly after my early evening class ended.

We started with the 8:15 p.m. SCMTD Highway 17 Express bus over the hill for $5. It’s a fairly comfortable bus, being a relatively new natural-gas powered bus with soft slightly reclining seats, air-conditioning on hot days, and free WiFi.  We took advantage of the soft seats to nap a bit, but did not try the WiFi, having no WiFi devices with us.

Then we took the VTA 181 Express from the Diridon train station to the Fremont BART station.  This bus costs $4 for adults, $1.75 for children under 18, and spends a big chunk of the trip on the freeway after a couple stops in downtown San Jose. The bus was packed, apparently with San Jose State students going home from evening classes. Unfortunately, the ride was on  a poorly maintained rattletrap bus with shocks that should have been replaced about 100,000 miles ago.  The seats were hard, the floors dirty, and knee room close to non-existent.  I’m guessing that either there is no money in Silicon Valley any more to maintain their bus fleet (or their roads) or that the money is concentrated in the hands of a few people who think that bus riders are so low-class that third-world quality is all that is needed. Perhaps VTA has been sinking all its money into expanding the light rail service and neglecting maintenance and replacement of its bus fleet.

The BART train ride  from Fremont to Berkeley ($4.35) was fine—the ride was fairly smooth and the cars clean, though it was clear that they were far from new.  It was a step up from the decrepit VTA bus, but not as comfortable as Caltrain or even the Highway 17 Express bus—and I usually find trains and light rail much more comfortable than buses.

Our connections were all excellent, and we got to Berkeley an hour earlier than Google Maps had suggested—the Highway 17 Express had made good time and we caught an hour earlier 181 than Google thought was possible.  (The usual schedule calls for the 181 to leave just before the Highway 17 Express arrives, since the transit agencies don’t think much about synchronizing between systems.)  We made it to our motel (Berkeley Travelodge) just over 3 hours after leaving our house, getting in before 11pm. Since the distance is 76 miles by car, we averaged about 23 mph, which is twice the speed of the public transit we took in LA.

The Travelodge had one of the smallest motel rooms we’ve stayed in (barely room for the 2 beds), and it smelled a little musty, but we slept well enough despite that.  The “continental breakfast” was also about the feeblest attempt at that we’ve seen—I had a cup of tea providing my own tea bag and a tiny sweet roll in a plastic package.  Our poor breakfast may have contributed to low blood sugar and less enthusiasm than we might have had with a decent breakfast.

In the morning we walked to Sproul Hall, the administrative building on Sproul Plaza where the information session was scheduled. The info session was so early in the day (9 a.m.) that the campus was nearly deserted as we walked across it to Sproul.  Even Sproul Plaza was nearly empty.

Because we are doing our college visits off-season, there were only 2 families at the information session: a father and son from New Jersey and us.  The admissions officer gave us his standard monologue, which was perhaps the least informative of the information sessions we’ve been to so far.  The video they showed us seemed more intended to recruit parents to donate to the college than to be helpful in deciding whether UCB was a good fit. It was difficult to ask questions, because the admissions officer giving the session maintained a continuous monolog (often about his family and career, rather than about UCB) that did not pause long enough for us to insert a question.  I did manage to ask one question about how home-schooling students were handled, but was told very little in response: there is no home-school supplementary form and that UCB does admit a lot of home schoolers. My son did ask a question about the difference between the engineering CS program and the letters and sciences CS program, which the admissions officer should have admitted he didn’t know, as the answer he gave was clearly incorrect, based on what we had read about the programs on the web.

The only substantive advice in the whole presentation was that the student essays should focus on achievements, not just activities, and that depth and duration of an activity are more important than breadth of different activities.  This was not news to us, but it was more clearly presented than at other colleges. The depth-rather-than-breadth focus is good for his admissions chances, as my son has two activities that he has been engaged in for a long time: theater for the past 12 years, science fair for the past 8, for both of which he has positive outcomes to talk about, though no obvious super-star status.  For example, he’s never won his category at state science fair, but he has gone to state 6 years running (a distinction shared by only about a dozen students), and he did make 3rd in his category one year.  Since all his science fair projects have been in the field he plans to major in, tying them into his application should not be too difficult for him.

The tour itself had more people on it than the information session, and was fairly ably presented by the student guide. It was not as sports-focused as the University of Colorado Boulder tour—perhaps not even as much as the UCLA one, though there was more mention of traditions surrounding football games than we were really comfortable with, and the tour guide referred to the sports terms in the first person (“we won …”), even though she was not on the team herself (she did play in the band that accompanies one of the teams).  As with the UCLA tour, we did get to see the interiors of a couple of buildings (the huge Valley Life Sciences Building and the Doe Memorial Library), but no classrooms.  The interiors we were shown looked more like museum entrances or film sets than like working parts of the university.  Because the dorms are at the uphill edge of campus, they were only pointed out to use from a distance. By the end of the tour (around 11:30 a.m.), Sproul Plaza was bustling, though the tour guide had felt obliged to apologize for how dead it was at 10 a.m.

Overall the Berkeley tour was perhaps the blandest and least distinctive of the tours we’ve had—it told us almost nothing about how well the school would fit my son’s needs.

My son had tried to set up an appointment with a CS faculty member at Berkeley, but he’d left it rather late, and the faculty member had said just to stop in during his open office hours (11–12) as he had no other time today.  The trek from Sproul Hall to Soda Hall is a fairly long one (½ mile)  for such a compact campus, and when we got there the professor was in a meeting (apparently with grad students).  We waited around for about 5–10 minutes, but it didn’t look like he was going to be free, so we left without meeting him.

We looked over Soda Hall, which is a nice new building.  We noted that it seemed awfully sterile: there were no conference posters, no announcements, nothing to break up the stretches of blank wall.  The faculty offices all seemed to be tucked away in lab pods behind closed doors—we saw no welcoming open doors as at Harvey Mudd. They had a big TV screen in the main lobby flashing up research posters and unidentified pictures, but none of the posters stayed on the screen long enough to read more than the title, and the resolution was too poor to read the poster even if it had been up long enough.  It looked like a movie set of a “futuristic” computer science department, rather than a real one.  The only lab we saw was the one where we waited for the faculty member—it had a huge bullpen of cubicles for grad students, a few conference rooms and offices, and a kitchen.  It looked like a department unto itself, and I wonder whether UCB is organized into independent fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other, the way so many large departments are.

We had lunch in a courtyard just down the hill from Soda Hall, that Google Maps currently identifies as “Northside Asian Ghetto”, which I doubt is any sort of official name.  There were several Asian restaurants (Korean, Chinese, Himalayan, Japanese (udon), Japanese (donburi), Vietnamese), and lots of students and faculty eating lunch.  I suspect that it is a favored hangout for CS students, though the few textbooks I saw were not likely texts for CS students. We saw a lot of students eating in groups, but we also saw a lot sitting by themselves.

Although we did not get a chance to talk with any faculty, we did get a chance to ask some CS undergrads about the program.  It seems that the classes are even bigger than at UCLA, with 400 or more in the lower division and 100–200 in the upper division.  There is more opportunity to do research, but students have to hustle a bit to find it—some of the students admitted that they didn’t know anything about research opportunities, as they had never tried to get involved, while one had done research his freshman year but had since dropped it.

I worked in one more visit, to the theater department to find out whether non-theater-majors had any hope of getting parts in productions.  The answer was a definite “yes”—they do open casting for all productions with no slots reserved for theater majors or minors.  The acting classes are the same way, though I note that Theater 10, 11, 110A, 110B, 111 all require an audition (a 1-minute monologue) to get into, and Theater 12, 162, 163 require an interview [ http://tdps.berkeley.edu/programs-courses/courses/class-auditions/ ].  The Acting Focus minor, which consists primarily of audition entry acting classes, looks like a pretty good fit for what he wants to do with theater in college, so that part of his education could be easily met at UCB.

Overall, UCB looked like a better fit than UCLA, but not really thrilling.  Even though UCB has only about 25,000 undergrads (smaller than the undergrad university I went to), it is big enough and the faculty distracted enough by grad students and research, that it would be easy for undergrads to get lost in the shuffle if they didn’t push themselves forward.

We took the BART, VTA 181, and Highway 17 Express back home, again getting excellent connections.  The VTA 181 bus this time didn’t rattle quite as much (the shocks were not completely gone), but it stank of stale urine.  VTA really needs to work on their cleaning and maintenance problems!

We’ve got one more visit to do this Spring (Stanford), then a few more to do in September (MIT, Olin College of Engineering, maybe CMU and U Washington).  He may apply to a few others without visiting them, visiting only if admitted.

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 September 26

First official college visit

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:45
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This past weekend my son made his first official college visit as a high-school junior.  We took a long weekend (Sat–Tues) trip to Boulder, CO to visit the University of Colorado, Boulder.  CU is not high on his priority list, but my Dad just moved to a retirement community in Boulder, and two of my siblings live a few miles away in Nederland. Doing a combined family visit and college visit before classes start here at UCSC seemed like an efficient use of time.

We spent Saturday traveling (walk, bus, taxi, plane, bus, walk) to get from our house to The Carillon, where my Dad has just started renting an apartment. The AB bus from Denver International Airport to Boulder is quite convenient, stopping right on the edge of the CU campus. It is $13 for adults, but as a student, my son was half price.  Rather than stay in a hotel, we stayed in a guest suite at The Carillon, which turned out to be quite a good room (a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, with full kitchen) for only $100 a night.  And that $100 was an honest price, without the usual 25% increase that hotels tack on for incidentals and taxes.  Of course, it isn’t a hotel, but a service for the families of residents, and I think that the somewhat high rent is subsidizing this service, since the same apartment unfurnished would rent for more than $100 a day.  The Carillon is on Boulder Creek right next to the CU campus, which was very convenient for our visit.

Sunday was family time, and we went “leaf-peeping”—driving out into the surrounding area and walking around looking at the brightly colored aspen leaves. We went up Boulder Creek (stopping at Boulder Falls for some photos) past Nederland (which, despite its name is 3000′ higher than Boulder) to the old mining town of Eldora, which has recently become popular for summer homes. We walked around Eldora admiring the aspens, which were just past their peak.

Aspen trees make a colorful splash on the mountainside above Eldora.

We then visited my brother’s house (and business). It is a big log house with several outbuildings (a garage, a full-size racquet ball court, a 4-horse barn, …) on 30 acres of land, which he had just bought for under $400,000—the previous owner had paid 3 times that for it. It’s a very pleasant house, but I don’t think that it would suit me, as you have to drive long distances (on sometimes treacherous roads) to get anything, power and internet service are unreliable, and the water from the well needs massive treatment to be usable even for bath water (they have to buy drinking water separately). I’m not that fond of heating with a wood stove either, especially in such a huge house. Still, it seems to suit my brother well (he rented it for several years before buying it when the former owner was foreclosed on).

Monday was our visit to CU. We walked to the Center for Community (C4C), where the tours start, and had the 9:30 a.m. official information session and tour. One thing that was very clear from both the information session and the tour is that CU is obsessed with sports.  Just about everything they talked about was somehow tied back to sports, as if that were the only thing that high school students would understand or care about (or perhaps all that the admissions office and tour guides cared about).  My son felt that he was unlikely to fit in on campus or to be able to relate to most of the students that he would meet there, as he has absolutely no interest in sports.  I suppose that CU is interested in maintaining the rah-rah sports culture, so they see the fact that their tours and information sessions drive away those not interested in sports as a benefit, not a flaw.

The campus itself is beautiful, particularly at this time of year, and fairly compact for such a large school. We appreciated that there were very few cars or trucks on campus, and that the whole campus seemed eminently walkable and bikeable, with easy access to both downtown Boulder and surrounding suburban-style malls without needing a car.

The tour ended at the University Memorial Center just after noon, and we had found out on the tour that there was a tour of the Engineering Center at 12:15 (at the opposite end of campus).  We hurried to get there, but I got turned around at one point and headed north instead of east (we did manage to get one of the few cloudy days in Boulder, so there was no sun to help us stay oriented).  We did eventually get to the Engineering Center, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only directionally challenged person in Boulder that day—we’d been told that the tours started at the north entrance to the Engineering Center, but there isn’t one.  We eventually found where the tour was supposed to start (at the West entrance), but it had left already.  I followed some signs to the Student Affairs Office, where they called to find  out where the tour was and gave us confusing directions how to catch up with them.  Luckily, they also gave us maps of the Engineering Center, so we had fairly little trouble catching up to the tour.

It would have been nice if the main tour had handed out campus maps (so that we would not have gotten turned around on the way to the Engineering Center) or if there were maps posted around campus.  Scheduling the Engineering Center tours to make it easier to get across campus to them would also make sense.

The Engineering Center has a couple of nice buildings in it (for the aerospace engineers—NASA and Lockheed were repeatedly mentioned), but for the most part the buildings looked run down and the equipment fairly old.  It was a very different feeling from the shiny new recreational building which was getting renovated and improved yet again, and the palatial football stadium (the price of season tickets for students was explained in detail). Clearly CU invests in sports, but not in engineering.

After eating at a cafe in C4C, we went back to the Engineering Center to meet with a CS professor that my son had contacted by email and who had agreed to meet with him.  I had left the office number in the apartment, so we went to the CS department office in the Engineering Center Office Tower (ECOT) to ask for the office number—I remembered that it was in ECOT but couldn’t remember the number.  They’d never heard of the professor! (OK, he was a professor emeritus, but still … ).

They looked him up on the department web page  and sent us to a different building in the Engineering Center (ECEE).  The office we were sent to was occupied by the graduate director for electrical engineering, who had heard of the professor we were looking for—the former occupant of the office who had been moved out a few months earlier. Luckily, he was able to look up the professor’s new office number (which was in ECOT, but on the 4th floor, not the 7th and 8th floor with the other CS faculty).  I think he looked up the address on paper, knowing that the CS department was incapable of maintaining their web pages.

We went back to ECOT and found the professor with no trouble.  Since I had made my son do a little web research ahead of time, he was able to ask a couple of meaningful questions about the professor’s research project, and we ended up getting almost a 2-hour chat with the professor, including a detailed tutorial on how to use the system he’d been working on for the past couple of decades.  It was interesting enough that my son plans now to download the open-source software and learn to use it on his own. Of course, the only research groups left working on this project are in Australia and Europe (other than one retired professor at CU), so it is not a major draw for CU.

One thing I noticed about CU was how little diversity the student body had.  I’ve always thought of UCSC as being a bit of a bastion of white privilege, since our student body does not have as many black and Hispanic students as a proportional sampling of the state would lead one to expect (equivalent headcount is 61.6% Euro-American, but California is less than half Euro-American).  But UCSC is nowhere near as white as CU (74.3% white according to CU statistics), where I saw few Hispanics, few Asians, and few blacks.  Even the engineering school (which at UCSC is 35% Asian-American) was overwhelmingly white.  I don’t know whether this is just a reflection of the demographics of the state, or a lack of interest in having a diverse student body.

I don’t think that CU has suddenly become high on my son’s list of colleges, but it was good to have visited.  He learned a lot about the value of a little web research ahead of time—the chat with the professor was the highlight of the college visit.

In the evening we walked with my Dad up Boulder Creek path to the Pearl Street pedestrian mall and had a nice dinner in a somewhat pricey Italian restaurant.

On Tuesday, we spent half the day with my Dad walking the other direction on the Boulder Creek path and coming back for lunch at a fast-food noodle place.  The Boulder Creek path is a bit dangerous for pedestrians—some of the bicyclists are traveling fast enough that their braking distance exceeds their sight lines, and there isn’t always room for them to swerve around pedestrians.  Still, the path is fairly pleasant to walk and well used. My Dad is still walking fairly strongly for someone who is almost 87 (he did 2–3 miles a day at a brisk pace every day that we were there).  The community he has joined seems like a friendly one, and we’re hopeful that he’ll thrive there for the next decade or so.

 

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