The end is near


Before coming here, I thought I would be writing here at least once a week. Well, when we arrived at Stanford, I was lagging behind with blogging the road-trip we made with Tiina and Mikko, that I wanted to finish it before starting this. As it happens, the road-trip blog is still unfinished, and I’m leaving Stanford the day after tomorrow, so time is running quite low. Maybe it’s time to do this now.

I’m from the School of Science, studying Systems Analysis at the department of Engineering Physics and Mathematics. Aalto tries to give one of the six Stanford Summer Session scholarships to each school, but for some reason they decided to give two to SCI and none to CHEM, apparently because Stanford is good at almost everything, except in chemistry…

For the last eight weeks, we have been studying, visiting places and getting to know people from around the world. It really has been a wonderful experience, and totally worth it. Let me share some of it:

First a bit about the studies. I had three courses, all worth 3cr: data mining, stochastic processes and introduction to cognitive neuroscience. The data mining course was nice, but not exceptional. First half of the stochastic processes was almost exactly the same as the stochastics course in Aalto’s Systems Analysis major – I actually used that course’s lecture slides to prepare for the midterm on that course. Oh yeah, one thing worth noting is that all my courses had midterms and finals, so two of the eight weeks went pretty much on preparing for those.

The last course, cognitive neuroscience, was clearly the best. I didn’t know much about NS before the course, just some of the basics of neurobiology. During the first couple lectures I didn’t really understand half of the stuff, as the words used in NS didn’t belong to my vocabulary – I had no idea what are occipital, temporal or parietal lobes were, nor what is neocortex. And it’s hard to follow a lecture when you don’t know half of the words nor anything about the subject. But this was also the course where I learned the most, by far. In addition to lectures we had scientific papers to read before each class. Some of them were from the beginning of this century, but the latests ones were published this year – how’s that for teaching from research?

Based on my experiences, my advice for someone who’s wondering what courses s/he should take here: try something you’re interested in, but that you wouldn’t be taking in Finland. This is a unique opportunity to try stuff that is not directly part of one’s major. If possible, try to take some courses which are not taught in Aalto at all – the quality of teaching here may be better, but it’s still not worth it to spend the summer doing something one could as well do back in Finland.

In addition to studying, an integral part of the experience is seeing the state of California. We started in LA and spent the first week driving along the Pacific coast – totally worth it. Since arriving to Stanford, I have been to San Francisco three times, one of which was to see the Pride Parade. Then we have also been to Muir Woods and Santa Cruz, and the best of all was a 2-night hike in Yosemite National Park. And finally today I got to visit the Google HQ. As a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, instead of telling about any of the trips, here’s a link to my gallery:

The notable thing about the trips is that some of them were offered by the Summer Session, but the best experiences we had to arrange by ourself: the road trip, Yosemite and the visit to Google. So if you end up coming here, don’t just wait for someone to take you somewhere – be active, and make sure you get to go where you want.

The third thing would be the people. Branner, the dorm where (almost?) everyone who’s in the International Honors Program lives, contains about a hundred students and twenty-something nationalities. I’m really bad at remembering people and I’m not social enough to try and get to know everybody here, but the ones I’ve learnt to know really are wonderful people, from all over the world. It does alter the way one looks at the world, having conversations with people from different cultures – when you speak about the situation in Turkey with someone who lives there, for example.

Worth noting, however, is, that not everyone here is as well-behaving and reliable as one might expect from people who come to Stanford. Personally I didn’t have any bad experiences, but from what I heard from other people, especially group assignments can be quite a gamble. If one gets a good group, it can be the best experience ever, as you really learn to know the people you study with (my courses didn’t really have any groupworks, nor too much social contact during the lectures, so I didn’t really get to know anyone from the classes, which was kind of sad). But if you end up with a bad partner (or two), it might ruin some part of your summer.

There are lots of things that I think Aalto could learn from Stanford, but then some concepts are just so different between the two universities and the two countries, that what works here might not work so well in Finland. I was also kinda surprised about how many (small) things there are that better in Finland – like some really simple stuff. I’d like to write an essay or something about the differences, but let’s see if I can ever get around to doing that.


Well, that’s the most important things I have to say, I guess. If you have any questions, I can be contacted by my Aalto-email (the simplest guess is the correct). Look at the photos!
– Arttu Voutilainen

Posted by Arttu

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