Should you send your kid to study abroad in the US after 12th std?

Last year, I asked this question on my Facebook page:

After 12th, should you send your kid to study abroad (US, UK, France) or should you have them do undergraduate studies in India and consider studies abroad only for post graduate studies? Assume that finances are not a major problem. Assume that the kid will go to a “good” or at least “above-average” college abroad. What do you think?

This question sparked off a great discussion where lots of people chimed in with their opinions and experiences. You should read the whole page, but for the lazy, I have captured some of the most interesting perspectives here.

Starting with my own opinion:

There is no question in my mind that most good/above-average colleges in developed countries will impart better education than good colleges in India. However, there is too much of a culture shock, too much freedom, too many distractions abroad, and a significant probability of the kid not being able to negotiate them all safely.

There is a small fraction of kids who are very mature, and very “sorted” in life at the age of 17, and know exactly what they want out of their education and their life – they should be allowed to (encouraged to?) go abroad after 12th. All others should wait until graduation.

Update: After reading the comments of a bunch of my friends, my own views have now changed, and I’m generally of the opinion that if you can afford it, and your kid can get into a decent school in the US, then going to the US is worth it.

Dhairya Dand disagreed with me:

without a wink – abroad.

  1. Since when did not being sorted out at 17 become a bad thing?
  2. A cultural shake up is precisely what a 17 year old needs to form his world views, why wait till 22?
  3. Grad life at 22-24 is focused, she/he has already committed to an area without being fully exposed to all the options one could have had in undergrad.

Rahul Gangwal pointed out:

i must say one thing here … once you are alone irrespective of age – the person does goes wild initially but matures 100 times more quickly than if he was at home

And Vaibhav Domkundwar came out strongly in favor of the US education system:

Based on my experience of landing at UC Berkeley right after my bachelors in India + interviewing/hiring 100s of freshers in Pune over last 10 yrs, I’d say kids are better off doing undergrad in the US and perhaps high school too. A lot depends on “how you learn” IMO. The undergrad kids, “on average”, at Berkeley were far superior in academic as well as non-academic than the international students from China and India.

Most importantly, I feel the perspective that you get in a (good) US university is far richer & wider than what you can in India, even now. Lastly, based on my experience in India over the last year, it feels like the change in the education system broadly is still short of what it needs to be.

Ankesh Kothari came up with a slightly altered suggestion:

sending your kid abroad as early as possible is a good idea. If you think he is not mature enough, then don’t send him to a 4 year college – send him for a semester long study abroad program. But the more different and varied experiences they get early on in life, the quicker they will find their center. The more hustling they have to do, the more confidence they will be later on in life.

And Ravindra Jaju pointed out that maybe as parents we worry too much about our kids getting “spoilt”:

If you want to focus on good education and holistic development, send them abroad. Kali might find them in this yug, but that’s already shaped by their initial 17 years at home. If you’d still like to keep a close watch on other aspects, keep them in India. Kali might still find them, though.

Sameer Nene was less diplomatic. He pointed out that maybe they need to get “spoilt”:

If possible, the kid should get to explore the culture on his/her own. This is important from a development standpoint – how to judge what right is or wrong or okay to do etc etc. You don’t want them to look at the world through your prism – they’ve already done that until they leave home.

Dhananjay Nene points out an interesting in-between possibility:

There are other intermediate choices as well eg. FLAME or Ashoka

This is absolutely right. These are Liberal Arts programmes, which give you almost as much flexibility as US colleges in choosing your field of study and what else you learn during your degree, focus on getting high quality faculty, and have modeled their teaching and evaluation systems around those in the US. You don’t get all the benefits of being in the US (e.g. exposure to a different culture, work ethic, students from all over the world, etc.), but still, for many students (parents), they provide a choice that is not as expensive as, and not as scary as going to the US.

In addition, Pune also has SSLA which might not be in the same league as FLAME and Ashoka, but is still pretty good in my opinion, and worth checking out if you can’t afford or get into the others.

There were a couple of interesting tangents that also got discussed:

Neeran Karnik asked:

how different is it from a small-town or rural kid going to one of the IITs in a big city?

This is actually sort of true. I do know relatives in villages who wouldn’t send their kid to Bombay for the same reasons that we might not send our kid to the US.

And Vijay Bodele wondered:

If Indian kids are not able to mature at 17, who’s fault it is?

This is an extremely interesting question, with lots of interesting possible answers. Maybe we’ll leave that for a future blog post.

Also, my friend Kathryn Chomsky from Spain jumped into the discussion to point out:

My 12 year old son just came back from a year abroad in Wisconsin (living with my parents and going to school). He absolutely loved it and has matured in many ways. Apart from improving his English, I think he is now truly bicultural and has so much more self-confindence and autonomy. In Spain classes tend to be overly theoretical and exams focus on memorizing loads of material. In the states he particpated in chess, Lego Mindstorm competitions, sports and learned how to do research and give formal presentations in class. We think it’s been a positive experience all around.

So, it appears that it’s not just Indians who have these issues.

So anyway, read the full post and all the comments, I’m sure you’ll find it worth your time.

A Mother’s Prayer for Her Child By Tina Fey

Actress Tina Fey, has written a lovely little note called A Mother’s Prayer for Her Child.

Here are a couple of excerpts for you (note – it’s written as a prayer to God, so read it from that point of view):

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.


And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

Read the full article

Why does light refract, but sound does not refract?

Rushil Roy asked this interesting question:

it is understood that light rays travel slower through denser medium (such as water/glass) compared to air. The same is true for sound waves, it has different speeds when it travels through different media. But why does light bend while sound doesn’t?

It is interesting that this question does not occur to most students (including me!) when they are studying in school.

Here is the answer, as far as I can tell:

Sound refracts just like light, but the issue is that we just don’t care as much.

Let’s go step-by-step through this.

We care far more about refraction of light and far less about refraction of sound because our eyes are able to very precisely locate the source of most light rays, whereas our ears are pretty bad at precisely locating the source of a sound. Where did a particular sound come from? The best we can do is “left” or “right” and “near” or “far”. So, even though sound refraction is happening all the time, we don’t really notice or care.

That brings us to the next question: why did our senses evolve in such a way that we can locate light precisely, but not sound?

The reason has to do with the fact that in case of sounds in day-to-day life, diffraction is a far more important phenomenon than refraction. Diffraction is the bending and spreading of waves when they encounter objects or slits of a size comparable to the wavelength of the wave. Now, the sound that humans are normally able to hear have wavelengths from 2cm to 2m (more precisely, 1.7cm to 1.7m; by contrast, visible light has wavelengths that are from 400 to 700 nanometers). And considering the number of different things in our environment that are of this size, sound waves are pretty much diffracting like crazy all over the place. Which makes it hopelessly confusing to precisely locate sources of sound.

This means that even if we had ears that were capable of precisely locating the source of a sound, it would be pointless because all the diffraction would completely confuse the system. In other words, precise location of sound is pretty much not worth trying for in most normal settings. (i.e. it wasn’t worth it for us to try to evolve precise sound-locating organs.)

There are two common situations where precise location based on sound waves becomes important. The first is echolocation used by bats. The other is ultrasonography (i.e. ultrasound imaging used in medical diagnostics). It is left as an exercise to the motivated reader to figure out why both these applications use “ultra” sound – i.e. 50KHz in case of bats, and 2 to 20 MHz in case of ultrasonography. (Hint: how is the frequency of the sound related to the wavelength?)

Effects of refraction in ultrasonography
Click on the image to see full-size.

And refraction is an important effect in ultrasonography. Here is a picture, from a scholarly article on ultrasonography, talking about how, sometimes, multiple images of the same thing get created in an ultrasound image due to the effect of refraction.

Here is a colour picture of the same phenomenon, just because people like color:

This is an ultrasound in which the patient appears to have two aortas, which happens due to the refraction of ultrasound waves across muscle and fat tissues. (Image credit: Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia commons.)

Another interesting artifact of refraction of sound is the fact that sound appears to travel much farther at night or early morning.

At night (or on the surface of a water body), the air near the surface is cool, but higher layers haven’t yet cooled down, so as sound travels upwards at an angle, it gets refracted downwards, and ends up travelling as shown in the image. Often, the direct sound path will have obstructions while the path through higher layers of air will be clear. Click here for a page with detailed explanations of various effects related to refraction.

Another mind-blowing aspect of refraction is this:

If light is going from point P in in one medium (e.g. air) to point Q which is in another medium (e.g. water), then the fastest path to go from point P to point Q (given the speed of light in the two media) is exactly the same path as that actually taken by light after refraction.

This is called Fermat’s Principle of least time. (And yes, this is the same Fermat, of the famous last theorem.)

Here is an interesting math problem which uses this principle. A lifeguard is sitting on a beach, some distance from the edge of the water. He becomes aware of a person drowning, as seen in the figure below. The guard must reach the swimmer in as little time as possible. Since the guard can run faster on sand than she can swim in water, it would make sense that the guard cover more distance in the sand than she does in the water. In other words, she will not run directly at the drowning swimmer. Your task involves determining the optimal entry point into the water in order to reach the drowning swimmer in the least amount of time.

The life-guard runs on sand faster than he can swim. Which path takes him to the swimmer fastest?

The solution to this problem is to use Snell’s Law of Refraction to determine the path of the lifeguard. The same principle also applies to shortest path via reflection. See Heron’s shortest path problem for an example. The advanced reader is encouraged to try solving the spider and the fly problem and spending some time wondering whether there is any relationship between that solution and Heron’s shortest path problem.

(Stuff like this makes me feel that I should should start a summer class for high-school students where we just discuss random science and maths stuff like this – no syllabus, no targets, no entrance-exam-coaching, just random discussions that start somewhere and end up somewhere else.)