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.” []), 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 [ ].  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.

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