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A Tale of Two STEM Schools

Monthly Series: This is the third article in our series about the college experience. After applications are in, how do people pick a school? What is college like when they get there? Where do they go next? This month: Director of Software Engineering Ryan Paulsen and Math Specialist Sarah Fletcher share their STEM school stories.

In the early 2000’s an oversized, lurid pink and blue brochure that read “junk mail” arrived in Sarah Fletcher’s mailbox. “It worked,” she recalls. “It absolutely caught my attention.”

The brochure was from Harvey Mudd, a liberal arts college of science and engineering, and Sarah, although she does not advise others to follow suit, put a lot of stock in brochures. There were, of course, other factors that swayed her decision — an interview with an admissions officer in which they both lost track of time, a visit to stay with Mudd students who took her rock climbing and to Putnam Exam prep with a side of pizza — but in the end, Mudd proved to be as wonderfully offbeat as the bright brochure had promised.

Ryan Paulsen needed less wooing to narrow his list of schools. “I knew I wanted to go to Tech,” he says. A student at a STEM magnet school in the southeast and the son of a computer scientist, Ryan saw Georgia Tech as a natural fit, not to mention the site of his sports loyalties.

Ryan began following UGA-Tech games after he moved south from Chicago in 7th grade. “There was one year — I think it was a particularly bad year for Tech football — when I felt like rooting for this plucky underdog team,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Those are my people.’ I’m not the kind of person who roots for the winning team.”

Thus Ryan and Sarah each applied to one school and declared majors that each would keep throughout college: she mathematics, and he computer science.

“I like to say that I applied to one and a half schools,” Ryan hedges, because he began the application to Georgia Southern but never completed it. “I think I started it just on principle.”

To be fair Ryan and Sarah received early decision acceptances from their respective schools before other applications were due, and throughout the admissions process, there were moments confirming they were on the right track.

“The application user interface was terrible,” recalls Ryan, who, in the vein of a Tech student, had been challenging himself to improve UX and content management systems since he learned to code. “But I remember thinking, it’s not their fault; they have to use the same system as everybody else in Georgia.”

“Over the summer you filled out a housing form,” Sarah says. “Some of the questions were normal: are you clean, noisy, etc.? Then there were ones like, ‘If you were a breakfast cereal what would you be?’”

At Mudd, there are no freshmen dorms. Rather, incoming students get sorted a-la-Harry Potter into dorms full of students from all years. The 800-person student body is a tight-knit community “across multiple dimensions,” Sarah explains. “When you’re fighting with chemistry homework, you can just knock on a junior chemistry major’s door.”

Sarah moved from Maryland to the small city of Claremont, CA, and unpacked her bags in East Dorm, or, as she describes it, the nerd dorm at the nerd school. “The was an old school arcade machine in the lobby, and we served fruit smoothies instead of alcohol at our parties,” she recollects. “We would also get a bouncy castle and ball pit. It was perfect for me.”

In contrast to the 1-square mile on which all five Claremont Colleges are nestled, Ryan was glad to move adjacent to Atlanta’s urban center. “I wanted to live in a city,” he explains. “I enjoyed taking the train every day in Chicago, and I’d missed that kind of accessibility in the suburbs.”

Rather than foster niche dorm cultures, Tech fell into the something-for-everybody camp. “There are those people who are going to be in the library all the time, and there are activities for activities people,” he explains.

“Tech was good at sports while I was there, so everyone was into them — people would line up for blocks to buy tickets,” he recalls. “It’s really the best of both worlds. At MIT, you’ll get an incredible computer science education, but you won’t also have D1 sports. At Tech you get both.”

And the academic culture? “My general psychological makeup of not caring about anything helped a lot,” says Ryan.

Ranked by Business Insider as the “smartest” public college in America, Tech’s rigorous reputation precedes it. Ryan was able to avoid a few of the most notorious classes via AP credits, but he deems Physics his first “this is going to cause people to change their major to business administration class.”

“A lot of people were panicking that whole semester or dropping out, but I learned that if you stick with it you can end up with an A,” he explains. Ryan’s A was earned via C’s on tests and an 82 on the final, but he found wisdom in that.

“Get used to failure being success,” he advises. “College is about learning things, not grades.”

“The Mudd culture is work hard, play hard,” Sarah explains. “You get the sense that if you’re not working hard enough, something’s wrong.” That said, she also describes it as extremely collaborative.

She recalls Mike Orrison, a favorite professor, as being “very on top” of trends in educational research. “We read articles before class, but we spent every class working in small groups discussing how to solve problems. The final was an oral exam during which you worked problems with [Orrison] in his office.”

Ryan too benefitted from a group of professors who spent time researching and developing best practices for teaching computer science. “At the time there was declining interest in the major, because computer science wasn’t the new, exciting thing it was in the nineties,” Ryan explains, “but there were still a lot of jobs, so they needed to restore interest in the field.”

Thus, Threads was born, a program that incorporates other departments into computer science education. After learning about the 8 threads during a freshmen seminar, each CS major tailors his or her curriculum by selecting a few to pursue. “I chose Networking, your standard, super nerdy route,” says Ryan, “and People, which was a collaboration with the Psychology Department.”

A favorite course of Ryan’s considered bees as a model for building distributed systems. “Half psychology majors, half computer science majors,” he recollects, “which, as you might imagine, is an interesting blend of perspectives and people.”

A step beyond interdisciplinary programs, Mudd is thoroughly a liberal arts college and a math, science, and engineering school. Sarah was drawn to it in large part, because it has a strong math program and would still give her the opportunity to take Latin.

While in college she embarked on a semester-long study abroad in Budapest run by mathematicians who had been ex-pats during WWII, and, back at Mudd, took a class on Dickens, Hardy, and Victorian-era technology. “Think about the culture of the places you’re considering,” Sarah recommends, “and be open to opportunities you didn’t know you were looking for.”

Sarah, by senior year, was looking towards a career in research. She moved to Atlanta post-college, after being admitted to Georgia Tech’s Algorithms, Combinatorics and Optimization graduate program. While there she worked as a TA and was surprised to find that “teaching is where I wanted to be,” she reflects. “Everyone has a limit where things get too abstract.”

Sarah left her program to tutor students at Applerouth and now creates our math curriculum. “Knowing where the SAT and ACT math leads makes me better at teaching it and gives me a better perspective on organizing it in our book,” she explains. “I think math education majors should take math courses beyond what they’ll be teaching.”

Ryan’s experience in software engineering has been similar. “Our projects aren’t always advanced enough to use higher-level computer science principles,” he says, “but even when I do something that’s not advanced, knowing theory behind it helps me make it better, because I know where it would go.”

In a move as seamless as his college application, Ryan applied to one job after college and landed it. “I found this job (heading-up Applerouth’s software engineering) on Tech’s computer science careers page,” he explains. “I had taken a few education-related classes as part of my People thread, and I thought, this is sort of perfect.”

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