Posts filed under ‘physics’

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

Depth vs. breadth?

Today Education Week reported results of a new study, first reported in Science Education in December 2008, that concludes a focus on breadth is misguided:

A central finding is that “breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses,” the authors conclude, “although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests.”

The authors build their research on a national survey of 8,310 undergraduates enrolled in their first college science course. Students were asked how much time they spent in high school biology, chemistry, and physics classes on various subtopics.

In each subject, the researchers said students had been exposed to a topic in depth if they reported spending at least one month on it—for instance, mechanics or electromagnetism in physics or evolution in biology. They controlled for other factors, such as students’ socioeconomic background and math proficiency.

How much does depth matter?

The results show that students who had spent at least one month on one particular topic earned higher grades in college science courses than students who had not. By contrast, those who had been exposed to a relatively long list of topics, but not in depth, did not have any advantage in college chemistry or physics and were at a disadvantage in biology… Students who experience deeper coverage of physics in high school perform in college as if they had received two-thirds of a year more preparation than those who had the opposite mix of depth and breadth.

One of the complaints voiced about Advanced Placement (AP) classes is that they are “a mile wide and an inch deep”, especially as compared to International Baccalaureate, but that is starting to change:

The College Board, which has been criticized for promoting what some say is a diffuse approach on its Advanced Placement science exams, is redesigning them to emphasize depth and scientific reasoning, said Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based nonprofit organization. The first of those revisions, to the AP Biology test, will be unveiled in September.

quotes from Education Week, “‘Depth’ Matters in High School Science Studies”

So what can a teacher do?  The study authors conclude:

…teachers should use their judgment to reduce coverage in high school science courses and aim for mastery by extending at least 1 topic in depth over an extended period of time.

March 11, 2009 at 5:23 am 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

AP success rates

The Advanced Placement tests with the highest scores generally fall into two categories: foreign languages and math/science.

1. Students who have been exposed to a foreign language at home or by spending extensive time overseas should consider taking the AP exam in that language. The percentage of such students earning a top score of 4 or 5 on the AP exam are 94% in Chinese, 56% in Japanese, and 50% in Spanish. Students do not have to take a class in the language before sitting for the AP exam.

2. The other courses in the top ten are Calculus (61% earn a 4 or 5), Computer Science AB (58%), Physics C (58% for E&M and 53% for Mechanics), French Literature (48%), and Psychology (47%).  If you’re trying to decide which AP courses your student should take, you might want to consider the passing rates.

(Although a 3 is considered passing, most selective colleges only give credit for AP scores of 4 or 5. )

The complete list of AP grade distributions can be found here.

January 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm Leave a comment

Info Session: Harvey Mudd

Last spring, a friend commented that her son, who wants to be an engineer, was applying to Harvey Mudd College.  Harvey who?  I went back and did some research and realized it might be a fit for my son, who is interested in math & science, so I signed up for tonight’s info session, even though neither of my kids could come.

Harvey Mudd is one of the 5 Claremont Colleges in California.  There is Scripps, a women’s college – near and dear to my heart, because I attended another women’s college, Stephens College, but not a fit for my kids.  I’m keeping my ears open as they speak about Pitzer and Claremont McKenna Colleges, to see if their focus on politics and public affairs might interest my daughter.  But it’s really Harvey Mudd that is of the most interest.

About 1/3 of their students pursue engineering, which explains why my friend’s son is applying.  No credit allowed for AP classes – you have to take their placement exams.  Clearly, purely, a focus on math, science & engineering…although you can also take classes at the other 5 colleges and they require fairly extensive exposure to the humanities.  And, if they get too advanced for their britches, they can take classes at Claremont Graduate University.  Having a women’s college next door helps even the male:female ratios.   One thing my picky eater of a child will like – he could eat at any of the 5 campuses.  A little variety in dining choices is a good thing.

Cute anecdote about athletics… between the 5 colleges, they have 2 football teams.  It’s the only place in the country where, at homecoming, both teams suit up in their home locker room!

Harvey Mudd strikes me as a place that truly has a vision, a niche, a focus.  I think this one is worth a visit…just have to convince my son.

August 25, 2008 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

Insights and advice from a parent of two gifted teenagers



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