Freshmen arrived at Caltech last week with a question more pressing than the problems of game theory or physics: Where are they going to live?
In a tradition known as rotation, freshmen spent their first week of classes living in randomly assigned rooms while they visited the eight dorms on the Pasadena campus for meals and conversation. They ranked their preferences, and in turn the upperclassman rated the freshmen to sort out housing assignments, which were being announced today.
Freshmen rank their preferences on a scale of 1 to 20, and 90% get one of their top three choices.
Michael Woods, a senior who heads the housing assignment committee, would not reveal how the process works, but he said: "We put a lot of effort and analysis into everything we do."
And, perhaps more important, rotation forces freshmen to do something that doesn't always come naturally.
"We're forced to socialize," said freshman David Hammett.
The dorms at Caltech are small, with 40 to 120 students in each. Meals are served by waiters in dorm dining halls. The residents of a dorm are "very much a family, very much a community," said Timothy Chang, Caltech's senior director of housing.
Even though rotation means freshmen can't really unpack for their first week, Caltech administrators say that if students pick their housemates, they will be more comfortable and perform better academically. Freshmen are graded on a pass-or-fail basis their first two terms.
The eight dorms all house men and women, and they look similar, but there are variables. Some students are assigned single rooms, others will have roommates. Blacker House is known for constructing elaborate party props, including a model submarine complete with periscope several years ago. A punching bag hangs in a Ruddock House common area, and Fleming is known as the jock house.
At a place like Caltech, where nearly one in five students ranked in the top 10% of their high school class, the differences among students are relatively small. "In reality, the students here are more alike than they're different," Chang said.
During rotation, freshmen are required to visit each dorm twice, once for lunch and again for dinner. In the process, freshmen meet almost all of the nearly 900 undergraduates. The upperclassmen in each house put on skits and mingle with freshmen.
Conversations generally focus on each house's features, although talk can veer into off-beat subjects.
Freshman Carol Wang kept a name tag on her purse that had her name, hometown and a line that read: "ask me about leprosy."
"I'm not sure why I put that," she mused. "Isn't it called Hansen's disease?"
For some students, rotation has its drawbacks.
Meeting new people takes a lot of time, Hammett said. "It's fun, but for me, it's difficult because I want to do my work," he said as he leafed through his algebra textbook.