How do you get the most out of a college tour?
Here’s how: talk with professors. As I mentioned in my last post, this is what my son has been doing this week as we tour liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest. Since Ben is interested in physics and a possible 3-2 engineering program, he made appointments to talk to a physics professor at each of the schools we are visiting — Willamette, University of Puget Sound, Linfield and Lewis and Clark.
Initially, Ben was intimidated at the prospects of visiting physics profs. These guys, after all, have got to be brilliant and we wondered how they would relate to mere mortals. But having visited two schools so far here is what we discovered:
1) Physics professors are incredibly friendly.
2) Not one physics professor seemed nerdy.
I got the impression that few high school students never visit these guys. They seemed eager to show us around their department and show off their lab equipment. At Linfield, the physics department is housed in the basement of a science building. It looked like a man cave with vacuum chambers and a variety of other equipment strewn throughout the basement. Ben was amazed at the machine shop in the cellar and the old glass-blowing equipment, which students have used to make vials.
At Willamette, a professor and one of her summer interns excitedly ushered us into a cold room, where the natural light was blocked by black butcher paper to protect the integrity of their experiment. They were thrilled because they had managed to “trap” rubidium in a laser experiment. To me the element looked like a dot, but then I’m a journalism major.
What I found valuable about the visits to the two physics departments so far is how much you can learn about physics as a major that you can’t pick up by simply browsing a college’s website. At Linfield, for instance, we discovered that the main focus of the six-member department is on surface physics. I initially thought Willamette had a tiny department — just three professors are mentioned on the website– but we learned that a post-doc from Stanford will be arriving for the fall and there will be plenty of research opportunities as he and another relatively new prof build up their labs.
With more schools to see, Ben won’t be making any decisions for months, but he’s going to have a lot of valuable information when he does have to pick.
So here’s my advice to parents and high school students. Don’t rush a college tour, slow down and spend quality time at a school. And chat with some professors!
On a totally unrelated topic, I want to congratulate my nephew Brian O’Shaughnessy (Truman State ’10) for finishing a 3,860-mile bike ride across the country yesterday when he reached Cannon Beach, OR. He and 30 other young riders made the trek as part of an annual fundraiser through the non-profit Bike and Build. It was inspiring watching them reach the beach and dip their wheels in the ocean.