A Visit to Caltech

Like most homeschoolers, I’m just blundering through, hoping for the best, and being as surprised as anyone that it seems to be working out just fine. But as Neil is technically in his high school years, and he likes college, it’s been time for me to take on the role of college counselor. To that end, I’m drifting into the process of locating various tests for him to take (which is easy with some, more complicated for others), and reluctantly training him how to take tests.

Another part of the role is the campus visit. Neil’s already spent time at San Jose State and Stanford, but they’re not the only Neil-compatible schools. So, in conjunction with a planned trip to Universal Studios, I signed our family up for a tour of Caltech. More than a few of Neil’s puzzle party acquaintances have gone there, and needless to say, it has a stellar reputation for geekitude. Whether I could fit Neil’s eclectic education into a format comprehensible to an admissions officer there was another big question for me.

So we took the tour. The students (or Techers, as the admissions office likes to call them) are the kind of kids Neil likes the best: smart, with a quirky sense of humor. They’re all brilliant, so all the classes are really hard, in order to properly test the academic mettle. It is incredibly small — there are only 1000 undergraduate students, making it half the size of my alma mater, which I thought was too small. And the core curriculum is heavy on math and science. Even if you were to go for one of the rare humanities majors, you’d have 3 hard-core science courses behind it.

Best of all (to me), that is, the students get to do actual research. And if it’s their research project, which they’ve managed to market to a mentor, they get paid and published by the university. Now that’s pretty awesome, particularly if you want to become a research scientist.

But being Bickfords, we had quirkier concerns about the college. Peter wanted to get a sense of how many coffee shops were in the vicinity of the campus, because if it truly is rigorous, there must be caffeine. Luckily for Caltech, students not only have a fine selection of Starbucks chains, but also Peet’s coffee as well.

I wanted to know how they’d celebrated Pi Day. It’s a big deal to us here on the “geek farm” and I would be skeptical of Caltech’s reputation were I to hear they didn’t celebrate it. Well, not only do they celebrate it in the traditional way, with pie at 1:59:26 AM on 3/14, students also come up with other impromptu ways of celebrating. Even though we were there the day after Pi Day, the campus was still festooned with a Pi paper chain:

Pi Paper Chain at Caltech

If you looked at the rings, they each had a digit written on them. As our guide told us, the freshman class [actually 6 spirited pi-loving students, not the whole class] celebrated by creating the chain on Pi Day, and got up to about 10,000 digits. Then, to our group’s collective dismay, we saw another student angrily walk through and destroy the chain in front of us.

Back at the admissions office, I was glad to find out I haven’t destroyed Neil’s chances of getting into college by homeschooling him, but he is in for a number of College Board tests. And I am currently flummoxed by the limitations of the common application’s Home School Supplement form, but I’ll have that worked out by the time he takes all those tests.

We’re all fans of the Big Bang Theory, so of course, we also had to map the campus to the fictional show. Wolowitz works in a funky building with cool architecture. He may also be based on the person who almost ran us down on the street in a new sportscar. The dining hall inĀ  the show is accurate, at least in table and spacing design to the real thing on campus.

At the end of our tour, Peter picked up a coupon for the campus bookstore, which ironically, didn’t have books. I did get Neil a Caltech shirt. I was pleased to see they sold pocket protectors, the emblem of nerd pride, and something not readily available on most campuses.

Caltech pocket protector

I plan on giving it to an MIT alumnus, a fact which should please any Caltech Techer no end.

1 Comment

  1. Daniel

    Hey, I just wanted to make a quick fix to your article. The pi chain that covered the campus was actually created by just 6 students who worked very hard on it in the previous months. They then surprised everyone with it the morning of pi day. It was completely unexpected for almost everyone on campus.

    cjb responds — Thanks for that info; I made the edit in the piece. That Pi chain was cool. Look out for Caltecher copy-cats at college campuses next year.


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