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Stanford Summer International Honors Program 2015

I am a thirfrom_Hoover_tower (002)d year bioinformation technology major in the Aalto University School of Electrical Engineering. This summer I got an amazing opportunity to participate in Stanford Summer International Honors Program at Stanford University. Stanford has been ranked as one of the best engineering universities in the world so needless to say how excited I, as an engineering student, was about the summer.

It all started back in January and now that I think back it certainly was quite a process. Motivation letters, recommendation letters and group interviews before being chosen, visa applications, visa interviews and giving out finger prints at the US embassy after it. Especially the visa application process was quite an adventure. It certainly took a lot of time and patience but already after a couple of days at Stanford I knew it had all been worth it.

On the Friday of the Midsummer weekend other people left for their summer cottages, I took a plane some 8700 kilometres from home to a place I had never even visited before. Tactically we took flights that landed in the evening in order to get the jet lag better under control which turned out to be very much needed because of the hectic welcome weekend and the first study week that started right after it.

To make the welcome weekend less stressful it might have be a good idea to bring at least clean sheets and a towel from home. In Branner Hall, where all the Stanford Summer International Honors Program students were staying this year, the rooms literally had only the furniture and a mattress. Pillows, sheets, towels and a cover had to be brought or purchased by the students. The Stanford bookstore has an ok selection of dorm supplies but the prices are cheaper at Walmart which was a free shuttle ride away. Some people decided to get bikes which now thinking would have been a good idea. I didn’t feel it was much needed on campus even though my classes were quite far apart but it would have been a great way to get to the close town of Palo Alto or to go and explore San Francisco.

I had chosen to study four courses: Modern Statistics for Modern Biology, Data Mining and Analysis, Introduction to Statistical learning and Consulting Workshop. The first mentioned was an intensive course that lasted for the first three weeks and only had a final project after that. This special arrangement made my first weeks unbelievably busy but also very rewarding. I expected the studies to get less time-consuming after those weeks but that did not really hold true because I had chosen a couple more credits than many of the other students and had decided to dedicate to completing them with good grades.

One difference that I noticed in the teaching methods was that there were a lot more homework than I was used to having in Aalto. Teachers gave us a lot of exercises to hand in but after completing everything we did not need to do so much extra work to do well in the exam whereas in Aalto there are less if any exercises to hand in but students are expected to do a lot of independent work. The courses were really motivating and I was very happy with all of my choices. Some of the teachers were actually from the industries rather than universities: for example our data mining professor worked for Google. It was also interesting to hear about the research done at Stanford.

Google_bikesWe had a chance to participate in different talks and tours. One of the most interesting evenings was a dinner talk by a founder of Stanford’s virtual interaction laboratory that studies the use of virtual reality to modify human behaviour. Later on I also visited the lab and got to participate in the virtual reality demo which was an eye opening experience. The summer session took great care of us by organising free trips on almost every weekend. I only participated in one due to the lack of time.

One of the most important memories I took home with me was the people. Branner Hall really had a unique, international atmosphere. Living together and sharing lives for two months makes people close. We were probably all equally lost and confused at the beginning so we got knit together even tighter. For someone who has been living on their own for a few years, living in a dorm took a bit of getting used to because of the reduced privacy of sharing bathrooms and showers with the whole corridor and rooms with one or two people. Quite a few of the Aalto students had their own room but I was sharing mine. It was not literally sharing a room though but rather sharing a sink and entering through the other person’s room and sleeping separated by a door. However, it was a good experience and I don’t regret not getting my own room.

The_ovalI also got many great experiences during my free time. I got a chance to enjoy surfing, sea kayaking and hiking in a redwood forest. I also got to watch a game of American football without even knowing the rules and enjoyed the fireworks of 4th of July on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

The thing I remember the best about the summer session group is the great feeling of working together. Different people from different parts of the world, studying completely different fields came together and had something in common. It was incredible how easy it was to speak to people and have amazingly interesting conversations. I feel that the conversation we had late at night studying in the lounge of the dorm and elsewhere were at least as important a learning experience as the actual courses. I truly made friends for life. In the end it was really sad to say bye to everyone although I trust that we will stay in contact.

I am also very happy to answer any questions you may have e-mail: vappu.ryyppo (at) aalto.fi

Elisa Ryyppö

 

Mikko at Stanford 2015

Introduction
This report describes the key learnings and most touching experiences from my summer school in Stanford. The report begins with describing the context, i.e. the path to getting in to Stanford and what happened while there. After the introduction, the report focuses on describing the academic and extra-curricular activities what I experienced while there.

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Path to Stanford
Having been interested in entrepreneurship before going to Stanford, I’d always wanted to experience the atmosphere there. Despite my high expectations, I had very little real knowledge on what would happen once in Stanford. To gain a better understanding prior to my departure to West coast, I asked several Stanford alumni from Aalto about the best tips about which courses to select, what to do while there etc.. Based on those advices I thought I had formed a solid understanding on what would happen. I couldn’t have, however, been more wrong – Stanford by far exceeded all my expectations in a positive way.

Academics
Based on discussions with Stanford alumni, I initially selected three courses: Interactive Management Science, Introduction to Decision Making and Technology Entrepreneurship. After the first week, all courses seemed really interesting and practical. I decided, though, to swap one of the courses, namely Introduction to Decision Making, as I wanted a bit more challenging courses while in Stanford. The course I chose instead was Data Mining, which ended up being both extremely interesting and insightful.


Interactive Management Science
The course combines basic mathematic theories to make management decisions. The course challenges the insight of using average as a key decision criteria, as average has several in-built flaws in real, rarely linear World. Course consisted a lot of Excel exercises, lectures and final project on the topic. Overall, the course gave me insight on how to communicate relatively complex topics in a way that is both not too complex to understand but is not merely an average of assumptions.

Data Mining
The course teaches basic methods on how to understand relationships between data attributes and predict future outcomes based on data. The focus of the course was especially, how to handle large datasets which consume a lot of computing power. The workload of the course was relatively high, but the course was also extremely rewarding. The lectures itself were well organized and the professor, working at Google, was able to provide us with practical insight on how the data mining is conducted in practice. I’d say this course was the most educational of my three courses.

Technology Entrepreneurship
The course gives exceptionally well-organized overview on entrepreneurship and the subtopics in its core. In practice, the course comprised several panel discussions with real entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers etc., as well as top quality lectures from Tom Kosnik and Rebeca Hwang. A big part of the course was a practical project, where teams of 5 selected an idea, broke it to hypothesis and validated those hypothesis on real customers to find out whether the idea was worth pursuing or not. The course taught me more than I could have imagined and most importantly, gave me a real spark to learn more about entrepreneurship – hopefully by starting my own startup one day.

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Extra-curricular activities
Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford provides unparalleled opportunities to explore life outside campus. I visited three companies, namely Google, Facebook and YouNoodle, to hear about how it is to work there and how they differ from Finnish companies. As a really brief summary of those visits, Silicon Valley corporate culture is extremely achievement-driven and meritocratic, and at the same time, organizations are really flat.

In addition to the aforementioned three academic courses, I participated in Silicon Valley Innovation Academy, 7 weeks long project focusing on design thinking and how to move from an idea to real startup concept. During the project, we had several workshops e.g. in understanding Silicon Valley mindset and how to do design thinking in practice. The experience was really helpful and the teamwork taught me a lot on working in a team with totally different strengths and capabilities.

The trip wasn’t of course only about academics. California has several places worth seeing and, thus, I spend my weekends mostly on travelling around the area. The trips I participated included but were not limited to Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Napa Valley, Sausalito, San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe… Furthermore, those trips and hangouts at the campus gave me several friendships which will surely last even after leaving Stanford.

– Mikko Rajala –

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DH’s Stanford 2015

I’ve had the privilege of being one of the 6 Aalto/SSHIP students in the summer of 2015.
I am writing this mainly for candidates who’ve already secured a ticket to SSHIP and specifically about three aspects of the program that had not been covered by others. That said, those who consider applying to the program might find this post to be a vicarious entertainment.

I am aiming to discuss three things in detail: choosing courses, pulling A’s and making friends. As for other aspects of the program, you will want to consult the posts insightfully written by other students.

On choosing courses
The first principle of choosing courses at Stanford is this: you don’t choose. By that I mean you do not make a final decision prematurely.

Of course, you had to submit the course list when you applied to the program. However, considering the list final is suboptimal. Although it’s emotionally painful to sit with uncertainty, you need to wait out and see for yourself what the courses are like by actually attending them in the first week. There is practically no downside of “shopping around” multiple courses and deciding later. Whether you want or not, you will most likely end up changing one or two courses.

Instead of blindly assuming your first choices will turn out fine, make your own roster of courses to check out. All in all, bear in mind course descriptions can be deceptive.

In case you’re curious, I took the folowing two courses.
STATS202 Data Mining
MATH53 Ordinary Differential Equations

In my case, STATS 202 was not even on my roster initially and MATH53 won against two strong competitors despite being an underdog the whole time. How were the courses? Well, I can only say they were worth the time and efforts. You should really go to the first lectures and decide for yourself.

On getting A’s
First of all, don’t get stressed out about the grades. Admittedly it is hard to get an A from Stanford and even harder to get an A+ that does not exist at Aalto. You must have cared about your grades enough to secure a ticket to be a SSHIP student. And you might have formed preconception that the level of courses at Stanford may be higher than that of Aalto. I think it is true but the way you think it is.

I’ve found getting an A from Stanford more difficult for one reason.

First there are a lot more exercises and home assignments. The course staff simply give more work to do and since most courses evaluate your grades on an absolute scale, you must faithfully complete the assignments and submit them on time. Unless you’re taking a course that teaches something you already know very well, a decision of which I think is really poor, the amount of workload will not be a joke especially as the summer courses progress very fast as condensed versions of the regular-semester courses.

Unlike what I expected initially, the courses were not intrinsically more difficult. The students there may work harder on average than most students at Aalto, but it is certaintly a myth to believe all of the students there will be somehow waiting to outsmart you with a scornful smile.

All in all, if you happen to have decided to get good grades duing SSHIP, you just need to do all the homework and prepare for exams as you’ve done so far. All Aalto SSHIP students in my batch who put in decent amounts of efforts got excellent grades, so don’t worry too much. 🙂

On making friends
Branner, a dorm whre most SSHIP students and many others reside, is de facto the ground zero that will constitute the majority of your social experiences. There will be lots of gatherings and small trips for students at Branner that you can make a lot of friends with.

I can predict with a reasonably high confidence that you will have more than 30 new friends added on Facebook the first week and perhaps,

100 the first month. You will meet a lot of people and have a hard time remembering their names.

That being said, I challenge you to go further! Wouldn’t it be better, if you could find friends who share your passion and interests? To make that happen, you will need to take the initiative and gather people around a specific topic.

Here is what I did. As geeky as I can be, I am passionate about startups, web and mobile technologies and games. I used the Branner mailing list to look for folks interested in joining me for various hackathons and tech meetups. I ended up forming a team out of Branner residents and participated in two public hackathons during the summer.

Incidentally our team even won Pebble Watches from one of the hackathons.

On top of attending events, I infrequently organized informal Hack Nights and Game Nights at the conference room in the basement of Branner and put together a handful of geeky students for working on something cool and fun. Boy did we nerd out so much there.

The kind of friends you meet in such focused events can mean much more than just “we spent the summer together at Stanford”. Recall many students you will meet through SSHIP are nothing short of being exceptional. It will be a lot of fun to interact with people for things you are genuinely passionate about.

I’d like to extend my sincere gratitude to Aalto University for supporting me to have such learning experience and make great friends.

For those who took the time to read this post, please feel free to message me for any questions or to share your thoughts. You can drop a line at dhfromkorea[at]the_famous_google_mail_service.

Hilla’s SSIHP Summer 2015

I’m Hilla Kurki, a first year master student in Photography and one of the lucky six who got to attend Stanford Summer International Honors in 2015. In this report I describe my SSIHP experience from the point of view of an art student, highlight some of the most memorable moments and also shed light on the basic living conditions on campus. If you want to hear more, feel free to contact me on my Aalto email!

Stanford is not well known for its art department, nevertheless it does have one. I almost did not apply, because I somehow thought that SSIHP would only be for the other schools of Aalto, not ARTS. Luckily I confirmed from our department’s study coordinator that also students of fine arts can (and should) apply. In your application and motivation letter remember to explain how your course selections relate to your interests. This will also help you focus and to make the experience an actual part of your study plan. I also took the effort to contact one of my former professors for an additional recommendation letter. He ended up writing a one sentence recommendation, the sentence filling the whole page. I think it is only positive to let your personality show during the application process.

Most of the art courses offered during the summer are introductory ones, so for an art major there is really no point taking them. The courses under for example Communication, Psychology and History definitely offer a possibility to deepen one’s understanding and wander outside one’s comfort zone. When browsing through the courses and planning your picks, keep in mind that the courses vary each year and the actual course selection will be published later in spring. Two of my initial choices weren’t offered this summer and I had a hard time finding replacements.

Finally I ended up attending three courses, each worth 3 credits: Plein Air Drawing , Creative Industries: The Business of Popular Culture and Who Am I?: The Question of Self in Art, Literature and Philosophy . I was really satisfied with all of them. The warmth, enthusiasm and knowledge of all the professors was impressive. They are willing to meet students one on one during the office hours and almost always stayed after lectures for further discussions. The pace of the courses was demanding but also highly rewarding. The culture to give a lot of critique and feedback makes all the work worthwhile. The homework consisted of weekly readings, response papers and essays. I was pleasantly surprised that both the teachers in Creative Industries and Question of Self welcomed more creative approaches for the final papers . In the Creative Industries we also had guest lecturers, like Youtube’s Creative Manager and self-published authors, who really helped to understand the courses themes better.

I would highly recommend the Plein Air Drawing for even experienced art students. The teaching style made even the basic drawing exercises seem fresh. Our teacher made the effort to make every class unique and really encouraged everyone to loosen up their technique. We ended up drawing in the gym, on the stables, on the railway station, on a beach, in a cafe…

The Stanford premises have two great locations to find some masterpieces: the Cantor Art Museum and the Anderson Art Collection. They have individual works from artists such as Warhol, Pollock, Sugimoto, de Kooning, Rothko and Lawrence. Cantor also has a Rodin sculpture garden and the campus area is filled with sculptures from example one Andy Goldsworthy. San Francisco with all of its galleries is just an hour away. The Caltrain operates all day and the ticket costs only little over 7 dollars one way. I also got the chance to visit the San Francisco College of Art and talk with their students. So outside class there are endless opportunities to see inspiring things! Be sure to visit the Cactus Garden, the most beautiful spot on campus in my opinion.

I was the only art student in my dorm (and I actually managed to meet only two art majors throughout the whole summer). Interacting and living side by side with students from different departments was eye-opening. SSIHP is a chance to not just to get to know Stanford, but also gain insight of different universities around the globe through the other international students. This can be highly valuable for networking and when choosing a possible exchange school. Together we attended an ecological surf course, visited Los Angeles with the Indian students (the trip included listening to Bollywood musicals for the whole 5 hour drive), climbed a mountain in Lake Tahoe and partied side by side in the historical San Francisco Pride.

Every week is packed with different opportunities to visit different attraction all around Bay Area. The trips are organized by the RAs (room administrators) of the dorm and all expenses are paid. The studies demand a lot of time, so most weekends I just stayed on campus. If one dreams of seeing California more thoroughly, one should plan to stay an additional week or two in the States. I took two weeks after the official study period to get to explore California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. The nearly 4500 km trip was packed with the most beautiful scenery in the world and some classic American road trip nostalgia, from shady motels to Bruce Springsteen songs blasting from the radio. Renting a car is cheap and you’ll find plenty of affordable roadside motels, so you don’t need to plan your road trip that much in advance. The same of course goes to the shorter weekend trips.

The hassle to get the visa is the only difficulty you should expect. That said, start the visa process as soon as possible. Once we reached campus everything went really naturally and hassle free. Three of the six Finnish students got a private room. Most of the shared rooms are also divided to two separate rooms with only a shared entrance and a sink. Our dorm, Branner Hall, was located really close to the Main Quad so I didn’t need a bike to get to class. The campus is quite peaceful and vast, with all the historical sights, a mall and park areas. The whole campus pretty much shuts down after 10pm, with few exceptions like Starbucks. I was really glad to find how easy it was for a vegetarian to find something to eat. The gyms and pool are also free to use!

All in all, during the summer I learned a lot and at the same time, a lot about myself. Highly recommend applying! The summer spent in Stanford was one of the best I’ll probably ever experience.

Best, Hilla

2014 Marc – Greetings from Hong Kong

I’m Marc Härkönen, the School of Science representative for the 2014 Stanford Summer International Honors Program (SSIHP). I’m a third year mathematics major in the Engineering Physics and Mathematics program, and currently I am on exchange in the University of Hong Kong. First of all, I would like to apologize for being so late with this blog post. These last six months have been very busy and action packed, involving me staring and finishing my bachelor’s thesis, being on exchange in two world class universities in two very different countries and about 32,000 kilometers of flights.

Everything started in January when I saw an ad for Aalto’s SSIHP scholarship. At the time I was preparing the paperwork for my exchange year in Asia, so I was not sure if I wanted to start with another application in the same year. But with a scholarship of about $13 000 as an incentive, and Stanford being Stanford, I decided to take the plunge. This decision ended up being one of the greatest decisions ever. I ended up being admitted to Stanford for the summer, and Hong Kong for the following academic year, with only three days to spare between the two trips.

Fast forward to late June. After a week long visit to New York City with two other Aalto students going to Stanford, Milla and Tuomas, we finally arrived to the Palo Alto railway station. Since it was a Saturday, when Stanford shuttle buses run very rarely, and we had just missed the previous one, we decided to walk all the way to our residence in Governor’s Corner. What looked like a pretty easy and short stroll though campus ended up taking close to 45 minutes. The campus is beautiful but huge, and it became quickly clear that we needed to get bikes ASAP.

When we finally arrived, we were assigned our rooms. All students in SSIHP were assigned to two of the Independent Houses in Governor’s Corner: Yost and Murray. Each housed about 60 students from around the world along with two american RA’s (Residential Assistant), one HD (House Director). Additionally each house had a separate wing for a Stanford faculty member and their family. I found it very strange to have a family with small kids living in the same building as students. To make things worse, the family living in the Murray House had just had a newborn child. As you might imagine, a building with paper thin walls and tens of international student is probably not the best environment for a newborn, and the family ended up complaining a few times about the noise.

About the courses. As a mathematics major I was hoping for some interesting math courses that weren’t offered in Aalto, but unfortunately all math courses offered in the summer were courses that I had already taken. I ended up taking courses related to my minor, Computational science and engineering. I chose CS161 Design and Analysis of Algorithm, CME108 Introduction to Scientific Computing, and since I still had one unit to spare, I chose ATHLETIC51 Golf: Beginner.

The Algorithms course was pretty interesting, but a bit too computer sciencey for my taste. The course took a very theoretical perspective on algorithms: all algorithms were proven rigorously and mathematically. We actually had only one assignment that required programming. The workload on that course was unfortunately way too high: 4 hours of lectures and the homework was expected to take 10-15 hours every week. Every homework assignment basically required us to design an algorithm, explain it in English, prove its correctness and analyze its runtime. That course was by far the most time consuming, and it cancelled quite a few weekend plans. Despite this, the lecturer was good and the slides were excellent; you could see that a lot of effort was put into making them.

I was pleasantly surprised with the Scientific Computing course. I was expecting the course to be very hands-on with lots of programming and little theory, but it turned out to be very mathematical and theoretical, which I liked. Again, the homework assignments took a long time to complete, but much less than the Algorithms homework. On that course I also got to do my first ever take home final exam, which was open book, open notes and open internet. The test however was brutally long: we were given 32 hours to complete it, and it took me about 20 hours. That’s doesn’t leave too much time to sleep, eat and take pauses, but the feeling of success when it was finally done is hard to put into words.

The final course was Golf, which was by far the easiest and most laid back of all my courses. We went through the basic swing with irons and drivers, chipping, putting and some sandplay. Since it was a beginner’s course, all that was done in the driving range next to our residence though Stanford students can go play on the Stanford golf courses for a very small fee. I really liked the course, and it was great to do something that didn’t involve too much thinking for a change. I mean seriously, what’s better than swinging a few golf balls in a beautiful location with perfect weather?

There are a few differences in the teaching style compared to Aalto. Once again Stanford got ranked number 1 university in the world for computer science, and you could definitely see it in the difficulty of the courses. Everything seemed to be much more thorough, the lecture notes and slides were excellent and the homework, despite the large amount of it, really helped to understand the fundamental concepts better. One key difference of Stanford is the lack of exercise sessions. Instead, the instructors and teaching assistants would have regular office hours, where you could do the homework assignments and ask about questions them or any other matter relating to the course subject. For example in the Algorithms course we had four office hours a week, two of which were accessible online via Google Hangouts.

Though Stanford is highly ranked academically, to me the best aspect of the Stanford experience was living in the dorms. I got assigned to a double room in Yost. My roommate was an awesome guy from Turkey. Roommates are usually hit-and-miss, but we got along so well that it definitely made the whole experience much better. The sense of community was really strong. There was always something to do, someone to talk to or someone to study with. We also had a brand new gym with a climbing wall and swimming pool about 200 metres from our residences. Other highlights of my summer were the 4th of July pool party, hiking in Yosemite and the SSIHP prom. Unfortunately I myself didn’t have the time to go on longer trips, but popular destinations were for example Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Hawaii.

When I was applying, I thought that this would be just a normal summer school, but it was so much more. I saw so many new places, met many new lifelong friends and experienced many things I could never have experienced back in Finland. I can safely say that this summer was the best summer ever. I am also very grateful to Aalto for providing the financing for the summer. Talking to different people made me realize how well Finland is perceived around the world, and how lucky we are to be Finns. If you are still on the edge about applying, I would say just go for it. Writing the application and motivation letter might feel a bit tedious, but the potential reward is definitely worth the time.

If you still have any questions, please contact me by email (firstname dot lastname @aalto.fi)

Marc Härkönen