Saturday, August 13, 2011

Montana State: Mountains and Minds

PictureCradled in the hills of Bozeman at an elevation of 4,800 feet, Montana State University is one of the state’s two flagship research institutions. 11,500 undergraduate students, 2,000 graduate students and a staff of nearly 3,000 means that people affiliated with the university make up nearly 50% of the city population. That’s apparent when you walk the bustling streets of downtown Bozeman, which sport a funky mix of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and bars. The music scene is vibrant and the youthful energy is palpable. 

Why might a student from Oregon or Virginia choose MSU instead of a local state school? Since 40% of the student population is from out of state, there must be compelling reasons. Here are some that struck me:

  • High-achieving students who seek balance are drawn to MSU. This is a place where people work hard and play hard. The school's generous merit scholarships and excellent honors program attract a smart crowd. Undergrads can get a $1500 research stipend and approx 250 students across all majors do research and share it with the community each April. The school boasts an impressive list of graduate fellowship winners. Honors students usually take two honors courses each term. “Great Explorations” gives them an opportunity to study a country for an entire semester, and then go there for two weeks.
  • Amazing professors make a lifestyle choice to teach in Montana. These educators have the credentials and teaching skills to be at the most prestigious schools in America, but they love teaching undergrad students, raising their families in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and experiencing four seasons of outdoor recreation.
  • Strong programs in the arts and sciences are the hallmark of MSU.
  • Ever thought about a career as a snow scientist? Be prepared for lots of heavy-duty science courses and check out the sub-zero lab at Montana State University. Built a few years ago, it is one of three such labs in the world. (The others are in Switzerland and Japan and the three labs do some joint research.) Students are researching avalanches and better predictive methodology, studying Arctic and Antarctic core samples, permafrost, fish migration, and have come up with some interesting techniques for “manufacturing” snow.
  • Yellowstone University is sometimes the school’s nickname, since jaunts to the national park take less than two hours. The school is known for its Yellowstone research and there are even classes available that spend a high percentage of class time in the park (including overnights). Where else might you study the difference between the geothermal features geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and mud pots and then get to see all of them “in action”?
  • 2,300 students are engineering majors and the school offers a wide variety of engineering disciplines including chemical, electrical, industrial, civil and bioengineering, as well as both computer science and computer engineering. Engineering students are active participants in “The Grand Challenge”, a cross-university symposium where students use inter-disciplinary approaches to solve our most pressing global problems.
  • If you complete film school at MSU, you might join the “Montana Mafia”. This is a group of MSU grads working in the entertainment industry who go out of their way to network and help new grads find industry jobs. The film school is frequently ranked among the top 5 in the country. Montana PBS is on campus and many film students intern there. Like many of the arts programs at MSU, admission to the film school is “gated”. Students take a year of film classes to build a portfolio and then apply for admission into the major. There are spots for 48 per year.
  • The School of Architecture has a 4+1 program which means students earn both an undergraduate and master’s degree in five years. The first year is open enrollment. Interested students may take the pre-requisite courses and build a portfolio.  Students will need pre-calculus and college physics to pass through the “gate”. There are spots in the major for 91 students per year. Students get ten semesters of design studios and at least three semesters of hand & digital graphics studios. 50% of architecture students study abroad during their fourth year, with the popular destinations being Rome, Asia or South America. Students may also spend a summer participating with classmates at one of their design/build projects in Nepal or Kenya.
  • One of the research projects I liked was a collaboration between architecture students and music students. The architecture students had to design a building and then give the design to the music students who composed a piece using it as inspiration. The music students also each composed a piece that was given to the architecture students who then designed a building to “match the music”.
  • MSU philosophically believes that competitive programs should gate at the end of freshman year, because many high school students didn’t have exposure or opportunity to build a portfolio or resume. Other gated programs at MSU include photography, graphic design, and nursing.
  • As a land grant school, MSU has its roots in agriculture. Animal science, environmental sciences, plant science, sustainable food and bioenergy systems, natural resources and rangeland ecology, and agricultural business are very strong programs.
MSU is not a commuter campus. Most freshmen live on campus, and upper classmen tend to be circled within a close perimeter of school. The dorms are comfortable and there is a good range of residence options including doubles, suites and apartment-style living. Campus dining offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices. There is an emphasis on fresh, local foods and the dining services staff has been sourcing more foods closer to campus.

The MSU Bobcats play Division I sports and athletic events are a huge draw for the students and local community. Intramural sports are also popular. Outdoor recreation tops the list of student activities and students tend to be passionate about hiking, climbing, bouldering, mountain biking, fly fishing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, ice climbing, camping, skiing or snowboarding. Free bus service is available to Bridger Bowl, Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski areas.

Everywhere I went in Montana the people were warm, friendly and genuinely caring. That was especially true of everyone we met at MSU and throughout Bozeman. From admissions director Ronda Russell (who has more pep than the Energizer Bunny) to physics professor Dr. Greg Francis (who believes the best way to engage students is to do a death-defying demonstration in every class) these folks love what they do. Their enthusiasm is really infectious, and MSU students seem thrilled with their choice of school. ( )

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The SAT, part 4: Writing

by Ilana W-B

The SAT is a three-part (math, critical reading, and writing) test required by many colleges in their admissions processes. I plan to write a post with suggestions for each section of the SAT. This is the last post in the series, and I will be focusing on the writing portion of the test.


Write a few timed practice essays. You can’t prepare for the prompt you’ll receive. What you can get used to is effectively budgeting your time. Use some old SAT essay prompts (available in preparation books and online) and write the essays, timing yourself. You can have someone score them for you and offer writing feedback as well.

Learn grammar. If you’re lucky, you’ve had a good middle-school or high-school English teacher who taught you all about subjects and objects, parallelism, dependent and independent clauses, proper punctuation, etc. If not, the multiple choice section will be tricky. (You don’t have to know the fancy terms for all of these things, but knowing the rules means you don’t have to rely on your instincts.) You can still teach yourself: Pick up an English grammar textbook and start following a grammar blog.

Read good writing. This can help you prepare for the critical reading section and the writing section all at once! However, for it to be useful for the writing section, it should be good but not too artsy. News articles are a great choice, as are relatively down-to-earth novels. Hold off on books like The Sound and the Fury or Orlando for now—the grammar is nontraditional.

Taking the Test

There are two pieces to the writing section of the SAT: the essay and the multiple choice questions. The essay counts for a smaller portion of your score than the multiple choice questions do, but both are important. Your essay is scored by two people on a 1–6 scale and their grades are added for a 2–12 score. The multiple choice section is scored 20–80. The two are combined (via a changing chart—there is no consistent formula) to produce your 200–800 overall writing score.

Essay tips:
  • Spend the first five minutes outlining, the next fifteen writing, and the last five editing
  • Make sure your handwriting is legible
  • Avoid slang
  • Stick to the standard five-paragraph model: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion
  • Draw your three body paragraph examples from three different spheres. A typical choice would be a literary example, a historical or scientific example, and a personal anecdote
  •  Address the prompt! If it requires you to take sides on an issue (and most will), pick a clear stance and stick to it. You don’t have the time for a nuanced approach
  • Size matters. Don’t ramble just to take up space, but do try to come as close to filling the provided sheet as possible.

Multiple choice tips:
  • If it sounds right, it’s probably right
  • Parallelism questions are a favorite of the test writers. Make sure all the items in a list are consistently phrased (i.e., act as the same part of speech)
  • Dangling modifiers also appear frequently. Adjectival and adverbial phrases need to modify an explicit subject. “Recognizing the importance of great literature, I read every day for two hours” is an acceptable sentence. “Recognizing the importance of great literature, two books were read by me every day” is not. In the former, the adjectival phrase modifies the subject “I.” In the latter, it technically modifies “two books,” which is obviously wrong
  • Remember that the first word after a semicolon is not capitalized.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Great Return on Investment with Montana Tech

PictureIf you are a student interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and want an affordable and personalized education, Montana Tech might be the place for you. Peer schools are Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico Institute of Technology and South Dakota School of Mines. Located in Butte, America (that’s what the locals call it although I say Butte, Montana) this school of 2700 undergrads produces job-ready engineers that employers compete to hire. Montana Tech students like to say, “We don’t study science, we do science.” This hands-on approach with plenty of field work is ideal for kinesthetic learners. 

The rich mining history of Butte makes it a natural spot for stand-out programs in mining engineering, metallurgical and materials engineering, petroleum engineering, geological engineering, geophysical engineering and occupational safety & health. Also of note is a five year BS/MA in professional and technical communications that offers a concentration in rhetoric and science. Healthcare informatics is also an available major where job opportunities exceed the number of trained graduates. The traditional ethics of hard work and community are apparent in every aspect of campus life. This is a “work hard, play hard” school. 

Students get plenty of support if they are willing to make the effort, and it’s often needed because class work in calculus and chemistry is especially challenging. Professors report grades on the 30th day of the term and there are proactive interventions for students who are not doing well. Many Montana Tech students were STEM stars in their high schools, and are caught by surprise at the level of academic difficulty. Tutoring is free and readily available. Professors are caring and accessible – willing to help students succeed.

Butte is a town of surprising diversity. Folks from around the world came to town during the Montana gold rush, and at one point Butte was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. That diversity is still apparent in neighborhoods like Butte’s Chinatown or the Irish pubs. Montana Tech draws an usually large number of international students for its size, including many from Canada and Saudi Arabia who are drawn to the petroleum engineering undergrad or master’s program.

Butte was the largest copper producer in the world, and mining is still a significant factor in the economy. Environmental responsibility is a large focus of the resource-based programs, as professors encourage students to consider the environmental, social and political aspects of all resource-based work. While the school does offer a BS in environmental engineering, it likely to attract people thinking about how to safely dispose of mining tailings, or build better fish ladders. This is a science-heavy environmental engineering degree, rather than a more public-policy or people-focused degree in environmental studies.

Montana Tech students fit in time for fun. The athletic facilities are undergoing a significant renovation, and students will have some state-of-the-art space and equipment in which they can stay fit and blow off steam. Although the classroom atmosphere is collaborative, Tech students love to participate in competitions. The school has teams that compete with the likes of MIT, Cornell and Georgia Tech in designing and building concrete canoes, human-powered vehicles, bridge building, software engineering and math. For more traditional sports competitions like football, the big rival is Carroll College. It’s an easy walk to downtown Butte, which has over 2400 registered historical landmarks. We took an historical tour of downtown that included a restored turn-of-the- century hotel that has housed multiple US presidents. 

One night of our tour we were treated to an acoustic concert by Professor Chad Okrusch, who is head of the technical communications program, and also happens to be a world-renowned folk singer. He played us original compositions that displayed a great connection to place and an ironic humor which seemed common for Montana residents. Check out his CD “Wisdom Road” and sample my favorite song, which was a protest song about the local towns of Wisdom and Opportunity.

Montana Tech is a great value. Students from nearby western states are likely to receive WUE grants, and merit scholarships of $2500-$6000 are available to students scoring 20 or higher on the ACT. The non-profit Student Assistance Foundation focuses on financial literacy and every student who takes out a loan gets one-on-one counseling to ensure he/she understands the terms and conditions. The most common reason students cited for choosing Montana Tech was the ability to get a great job upon graduation (which explains why their student loan default rate is way lower than average).