It’s never too early to start talking with kids about college, and you can’t put a price on inspiration. These were some of the ideas reinforced by our “partial” family’s visit today to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, about thirty minutes north of downtown Chicago right on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

Enroute to Northwestern University

I’m here in the Chicago area to learn and share with other educators at the 2011 TechForum Conference tomorrow. Since this opportunity was available, I cashed in some Delta frequent flier miles and asked both my 13 year old son and wife to join me on this trip so we could enjoy the Chicago area together. It also seemed like a great chance to have conversations and shared experiences about Alexander’s academic future after high school. It may seem silly to take a 7th grader on a college visit, but I’m convinced kids start forming their goals and ideas about college VERY EARLY in life. In some cases (certainly my own) goals about college can even become a part of our identity as we become teenagers and grow older. In talking with lots of people over the years about how and when they decided to go to college and what that “journey” looked like for their own children, I’ve become convinced we need to talk early, regularly and often with our children (and students) about college. After consulting with our Pastor, Mateen Elass, whose son recently graduated from a Chicago-area university, we decided to spend the afternoon today on the campus of Northwestern. What a treat it was!

At Northwestern's Technological Institute

Certainly the greatest irony of the day was the fact that 4 of the 5 people in our family (not naming names, but all the youngersters!) consider themselves to be pretty big Kansas State University Wildcat fans. The colors of KSU (if you don’t know) are purple and white. Not only is purple the color of Northwestern, but they are the Wildcats too!

Willie's Food Court at Northwestern

In addition to this irony, we reflected today during our campus tour on how NU Wildcats are in the Big 10 which now has 12 teams, while the KSU Wildcats are in the Big 12 which now has 10 teams. It’s often a strange world! Hopefully these “northern wildcats” will have a better track record beating the Cornhuskers of Nebraska on the gridiron than our KSU teams did “back in the day.” 🙂

Paws 'N Go C-Store

Before going into some details about our day, I’ll observe from a technical standpoint the Northwestern Admissions office has a superb online setup for making orientation session appointments. They utilize a Google Calendar mashup service by Trumba. Their setup allowed us to not only schedule our appointments at admissions and the College of Engineering today with ease, but also added the events to my Google Calendar as well as iCal on my Apple laptop, iPhone, and iPad. This latter fact proved pivotal, because my iPhone’s battery was exhausted by the time our campus tour ended and we were ready for our Engineering appointment. Since the appointment details were also synced to my iPad, however, I was able to look up our meeting room number in the HUGE Technological Institute building.

Touring Campus at Northwestern

One of the biggest highlights of the day came during our appointment at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Benjamin Slivka, an alumnus of the university (who also happens to be a current trustee and a longtime Microsoft employee who led the IE team through version 3.0) was also visiting from Seattle and joined us for part of our meeting with Ellen Worsdall.

Alexander Fryer and Benjamin Slivka

Alexander enjoys math as well as building things (he’s an avid lego builder) so different people have talked to him about considering a career in engineering. Benjamin shared several stories with us today about different graduates of the computer science and engineering programs at Northwestern who have gone on to have successful, diverse careers. He also shared his personal definition of engineering, which is “solving problems within constraints.” I’m sure today’s experiences talking about engineering and engineers at Northwestern will be memories Alexander will look back on fondly in the years ahead!

Engineering Lab at Northwestern University

Two things impressed me most about the College of Engineering at Northwestern. First of all, they take an “Engineering First” approach which means they focus on hands-on design from day one. Freshmen take a design class their first year, in which they work on a team with a real client to create a product which solves their specific problem or meets their specific needs. At the Air Force Academy, we had a required engineering design class as seniors. I think it’s AWESOME NU takes this hands-on and design-focused approach. Too often students are forced to wait till the end of their programs to actually “do” things professionals in their field do, and sometimes that’s too late if they don’t have sufficient motivation to persevere through a program’s other requirements.

Engineering Design class at Northwestern University

The second thing which REALLY impressed both my wife and I was the balanced, “whole mind” approach faculty and administrators at Northwestern take toward education and engineering specifically. They focus continually on communication skills and cultivating the right as well as left sides of the brain. Students are encouraged to take classes in the arts and other areas. In fact, we learned 20 to 30% of engineering students’ classes must be taken outside the college of engineering. This focus on balance and a well rounded education is WONDERFUL and hopefully something Alexander can find at whatever university he ends up attending.

Designers, Engineers and Problem Solvers Wanted

Theoretical High Energy Physics Postdocs

The capstone to our visit today was an impromptu tour of the Northwestern University Hardy House Debate Society.

Northwestern University Hardy House Debate Society

Alexander is in his second year of Lincoln-Douglas debate at Classen SAS in Oklahoma City, and is planning to start cross-ex debate next year as an eighth grader. It was VERY interesting to learn about the successes of the Northwestern debate squad (including another national NDT title this year) as well as the scholarship opportunities which are available to some debaters at NU. Lots of exciting possibilities, and lots of wonderful tradition to consider becoming a part of.

Congratulations NU Debaters

Debate Trophies at Northwestern University

As a final bit of multimedia from Northwestern, here’s a 360 degree panoramic image I took today on campus using the iPhone app 360 Panorama. I still love the Pano app, but I REALLY like how 360 Panorama lets you ‘paint’ over a scene until you’ve captured it all. I also love how it cross-posts to both TwitPic and it’s own hosted site, which reminds me of QuickTime VR panoramas.

Panorama at Northwestern University

I encourage you to find and make opportunities to talk about college with your own children at home and students in your classroom. It’s never too early to start, and you never know where conversations may lead!

Alexander Fryer at Northwestern University in May 2011

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