Posts filed under ‘math’

Yale vs. Harvard

Would a Yalie recommend Harvard over Yale?  Yes.

Surprised?  I was.

My seatmate on the airplane was a former university president who is an active Yale alumnus.  Becaus of his background, I asked for his take on my son’s short list of colleges, which includes Yale.  When he found out that my son is interested in science and math, he said he thought Harvard or MIT would be a better fit than Yale.  Why?  First, because Yale is traditionally stronger (or more focused on) the arts than the sciences.  Secondly, he thinks Boston has more to offer.

Interesting advice, especially since we were intrigued by the seminar that Yale offers (only) for freshmen who have done scientific lab research in the past, which gives them exposure to all the various science disciplines at Yale.   Harvard might have something like that, but we never heard about it.


September 15, 2009 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Book Review: Early thinking about grad school

My son wants to major in some aspect of science.  There’s a good chance that he’ll end up wanting and/or needing to go to grad school.  I earned an MBA, but that’s sort of a different animal, so I feel inadequate advising him about grad school.

Getting What You Came ForThen a book caught my eye:  Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D.    It was written by a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford who was frustrated at how long it took him and his friends to earn their graduate degrees, due to missteps along the way.

I found the book very helpful in enabling me to understand the process, and I plan to try to get my son to read the first half of the book before he goes off to college.   It deals with topics like:

  • Do you need a Ph.D., a master’s degree, or neither?
  • Should you work first?
  • What is grad school like?  How does it differ from undergrad school?
  • How do you select a grad school and what can you do to improve your admission chances?
  • What constitutes a good advisor, how do you get one, and how do you dump a bad one without sabotaging yourself?
  • How do you work the grad school politics, even if politicking isn’t your thing?
  • How do you pick a good research topic, one that will be manageable, yet lead to results, and result in getting interim papers published so you build a track record?
  • Should you pursue opportunities as a teaching assistant or a research assistant?

Some of the advice – like how to select and use an advisor or what to pick for a research topic – is very apropos for undergrads, too.  But more importantly, an undergrad should be contemplating the grad school decision much earlier than senior year.  To borrow advice from Stephen Covey, “Start with the end in mind”.

The book also helped me rethink my bias towards sending my son to an liberal arts college rather than a research university.  I now think it would be good for him to get to know grad students informally and see what is expected of them, before he makes up his mind about grad school.  But I think this book will help him get a bigger picture than what he might get in casual conversation with grad students, who might be tired, discouraged or lonely at any given point in their long slog towards their Ph.Ds. and who therefore might discourage him in an off-hand conversation.

The book is thick, which can be daunting.  It’s helpful to know that (a) you can skim or peruse much of the first half and (b) you really don’t need the second half until you are actually starting thesis research.

August 6, 2009 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

College Visit: Univ of Chicago

Univ of ChicagoIt was pouring rain when we got to the University of Chicago, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Impressive stone architecture.   As my husband put it, with all the ivy climbing the buildings, it should be an Ivy League school.  The admissions office is in a building with huge rounded wooden doors.  A visit to the restrooms requires a hike up the stone staircase and through the famed Chicago School of Economics.  It gave me chills to think about the people whose footsteps I was following.

[If you’d like a more modern dose of U of Chicago economic thinking, read the book Freakonomics, which was started by a grad student’s research.  You’ll understand the HBO Series, The Wire, much better.]

The curriculum really impressed me:

  • U of Chicago has an incredibly low faculty to student ratio of 6:1.
  • They leverage that low ratio to focus on discussion-based classes.  After all the lecture halls we have toured elsewhere, I was so surprised at being taken into a classroom that was arranged into a circle that I walked up and down the hallway to check.  Every classroom was arranged in a circle!
  • There is a bit of the Great Books approach to learning, similar to what you’ll find at Reed College or St. John’s.  Our tour guide said that students can pretty much count on reading Marx, Aristotle,  and maybe Kant and/or Smith.  Thus, every student has a shared fundamental understanding of philosophy, ethics, and economics.   And by reading Marx, they get their biases and assumptions challenged.
  • Our tour guide talked about interesting classes, engaged professors and grad students, and being challenged to explore big picture themes like war, love & happiness.  Never before have I heard a tour guide talk about a class not wanting the semester to end!
  • I had always thought of Chicago as the brainiac school of Illinois, where the real intellectuals – the ones who love to learn and discuss and debate – study.   So does our tour guide.  So did an admissions counselor quoted in the New York Times recently.   The University of Chicago admissions counselor spoke about looking for “scholarly curiosity”.
  • As evidence that it is truly a liberal arts college and not a pre-professional place, they offered up the fact that there is no engineering program.
  • Of course, the city of Chicago is used as a resource for classes, with all the exhibits, plays, etc. that the city has to offer.
  • There are some accelerated programs (math, chemistry, & med school) and AP credit options that might allow a student to graduate almost a year early.

Drawbacks?  As my son pointed out, if the classrooms are designed to be interactive, you’d better be good at participating in discussions.   And the professors better be adept at preventing one or two people from monopolizing the conversation.

The University of Chicago offers about 12 full-tuition scholarships and 200 1/3 tuition scholarships.  To win one, you have to impress the faculty, not the admissions office.

From a residential standpoint, Chicago has “houses” like Hogwarts.  Students can dine in their house or, in the main dining hall, eat at their house table…or hang out with friends from other houses.

One advantage at Chicago is the availability of research opportunities.  The medical center is next door.   There are strong ties to physics research facilities.  This year they will open a new chemistry building that is designed to implode – after evacuation – if something goes seriously wrong…which makes you wonder what they are working with in there!

Up until now, I have been leary about sending my child to a research university.  My bias has been that an undergraduate student – particularly an introverted one – will get more opportunities and more attention from professors at a small liberal arts college.  But I’m now realizing that, at a research university, an undergrad can get to know some grad students, see what they have to do, and get a sense for whether that is a path he or she wants to take.

By the way, CalTech and University of Chicago consistently send out the most interesting direct mail pieces – at least as far as this nerd is concerned.

July 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

College Visit: Northwestern University

My husband describes Northwestern University as the biggest medium-sized college he’s ever seen.  It seemed like we walked for miles and still didn’t see half the campus.  The sciences are primarily in a complex called the Technology Institute, which has an incredible 17 miles of corridors.  (Guys, you’d better learn to ask directions if you want to arrive at class on time.)

My son is intrigued by some of the accelerated programs (HPME for medicine, Integrated Science Program, MENU for accelerated math).  Be careful about choosing NU for these special programs.  Not only are they very limited in numbers but some are incompatible with each other or other programs.  For example, engineers can’t be in MENU, yet those who want the Kellogg certificate (the only business-oriented option for undergrads) MUST be in MENU.

Engineers: take note of Northwestern’s innovative approach.  Freshmen tackle a real-world problem as teams.  At places like Harvey Mudd, these hands-on projects are done as seniors.  Northwestern wants to give freshmen a good feel for whether engineering is really for them. NU also offers engineers a one-year (handsomely) paid internship program called Co-op, that often results in an employment offer.

My daughter originally was interested in Northwestern because of its journalism program, but ended up deciding that she didn’t want to attend there unless she was going to major in journalism.  After interning with a newspaper, she decided journalism wasn’t for her.  Now here we are again…my son thinks he’s only interested in NU if he decides he wants to be in one of their special programs.

July 8, 2009 at 6:36 pm Leave a comment

SAT subject test strategies

To partially answer my own question…

  • Students should take the foreign language SAT subject tests after completing 3 years of language classes.  Don’t wait until finishing the AP course.  The subject tests cover grammar, not the literature that is the focus of the AP classes.
  • Math students should take the SAT subject tests after completing algebra, geometry, and trigonometry / pre-calculus.  It doesn’t cover calculus, so don’t wait to take it until you’ve taken calculus, as you might forget some of the material that is on the test.

(From a book I browsed while waiting to talk to the high school counselor.  Sorry, I didn’t write down the title.)

February 25, 2009 at 7:07 pm Leave a comment

Colleges for future Ph.D.s

If you think your child is destined to be a researcher or college professor, which colleges and universities should you investigate?

Try this list of the top 25 baccalaureate colleges and top 25 research universities, measured on the basis of the number of their students who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the sciences or engineering.  Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) put this list together.  HHMI is a non-profit that funds biomedical research and has also taken on the mission of improving science education.

The headline of HHMI’s complete report, “A Wellspring of Scientists”, is that “when it comes to producing science Ph.D.s, liberal arts colleges are at the head of the class”.

February 16, 2009 at 7:52 am Leave a comment

College Visit Report: CalTech, Harvey Mudd & Stanford

My son and I just returned from our trip to visit science & math-focused colleges in California.

CalTech: I expected CalTech would have extensive science labs & equipment, but they never showed off anything but the outsides of their academic buildings. The core requirements include lots of math & physics, but minimal biology & chemistry – is that an indication of something? Lots of summer research money and the possibility of doing research with a Nobel Prize winner (if all the grad students don’t crowd you out).

Eight dorms, which function more like frat houses in that everyone eats dinner in the dorm and social life revolves around the dorm. For a picky eater, like my son, it doesn’t sound real great that everyone (except vegans, vegetarians, and those eating kosher) has the same meal, served family style. On the other hand, for an introvert (75% of gifted kids), you’re forced to make friends. Each dorm includes equal numbers of freshmen, sophomores, juniors & seniors, so there is always someone older to ask for advice.

Harvey Mudd: One of the 3 best information sessions we’ve attended, because the admissions person had a very clear sense that Harvey Mudd is a unique place and a great fit for some but a lousy fit for others. Small, compact campus. No long treks from one classroom to another. Teachers seem involved with the students, if the stuff posted in the hallways is any indication. Math department is supposed to be #1 in the nation, although I don’t know what the criteria is, and the Putnam Competition team does exceptionally well. The 5 Clarement Colleges coordinate faculty hiring decisions, so they maximize the number of specialties and minimize overlap among faculty.

Social bonds at Harvey Mudd seem to be formed in project teams rather than dorms. HMC also offers “clinics” in lieu of a senior research project & thesis. In a clinic, a company brings a real-life problem to a team of students, and the students have to solve the problem by the end of the semester, while updating their company liaison weekly via teleconference. Clinics, and HMC in general, seem more hands-on and less theoretical, reflected by the fact that the most common major is engineering. Perhaps a great fit for kinesthetic learners and maybe visual learners. Everyone is required to take an engineering class and a computer science class, unlike any other school we have investigated. Interestingly, my son now thinks that would be a good thing and would introduce him to some fields that he has not yet investigated and which he might like. No automatic AP credit and don’t expect to test out of many classes here.

Dorms weren’t impressive, but each has a personality. Brand new cafeteria, and students can take classes or eat at any of the other Claremont colleges. Although Harvey Mudd has more guys than girls, Scripps College next door is a women’s college.

Stanford: What a contrast to Harvey Mudd! Stanford feels huge, well-endowed (based upon the amount of construction), and an all-things-to-all-people kind of place. The campus is so big that there are more bicycles than students and I only saw one person walking to class but nearly got mowed down by bicycles multiple times. Beautiful place. Lots of money for summer research projects. Famous people as professors and guest speakers. Students will find every type of group or club here, but will an introvert easily make friends in such a big place? Will the grad students get all the attention and best research opportunities?

The best part? Financial aid. Full rides for those with incomes less than $60,000; free tuition for incomes less than $100,000. The caveat: “provided your assets are in line with others with that level of income”, so those of us who did the right thing and saved for retirement and college get dinged.

January 17, 2009 at 1:16 pm 1 comment

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