Whether controlling the arms of a robot performing a mock medical procedure or examining butterflies in flight to adapt their motion to new insect-size drone technology, students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore consider research a critical component of their education. An estimated 40 percent of the school's 5,100 undergrads participate in such projects.
"It's just really cool to see those ideas grow ... and know that you contributed something to the field," says Meagan Young, class of 2012, of Dallastown, Pa.
Hopkins also maintains a dedicated undergraduate research journal and receives more federal dollars for research than any other university in the country, according to Arizona State University's Center for Measuring University Performance.
Undergraduates at Hopkins take classes at the 140-acre Homewood campus near Baltimore's Charles Village neighborhood, a few miles north of downtown. Its red-brick Georgian buildings with white columns are separated by green lawns, tree-lined paths, and open quads.
Only about 55 percent of undergrads live on campus, so many upperclassmen live around the city, too, though some wish more on-campus options were available. Room and board run about $13,400 a year, plus undergraduate tuition and fees of $43,900.
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Students are quick to note that life at Hopkins revolves around schoolwork, and that the workload is heavy. "It's kind of a pressure cooker," says recent graduate Lily Newman, of New York City. "If you like to be busy, you'll be happy."
Earning top grades is difficult, as is winning admission: Only about 18 percent of first-year students who applied for the fall of 2011 were accepted. To help them adjust, freshmen take courses pass-fail during their first semester. Undergraduates can select from 50 majors and 41 minors across six schools.
While Hopkins enjoys a storied reputation for its engineering and science programs—and as a premed breeding ground—it also boasts strong offerings in international studies, writing seminars, and the humanities. There are no majors in studio art, music, or theater, but the university does offer minors and certificate programs in those disciplines.
Aside from a university-wide writing requirement, students do not have to complete the same core curriculum; instead they must meet the requirements defined by their individual academic programs, which often do expose them to a broad range of other disciplines. Says Steven David, professor of political science and vice dean for undergraduate education, "We put a lot of responsibility on the student" to direct his or her own course.
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Students appreciate the flexibility and curricular freedom, but caution that this requires careful planning and individual initiative. Some 95 percent of classes at Hopkins are taught by faculty members, and about two thirds of them have fewer than 20 students, though some say that introductory courses, particularly in the sciences, can be larger and more impersonal.
Even though the work can be intense, students do find some time to unwind. There are more than 370 clubs and organizations to choose from, as well as 22 Division III sports teams. Many students also rally behind the Division I men's and women's lacrosse teams.
About one in five students are members of a fraternity or sorority, and students say Greek organizations are a visible presence but not a dominating force in campus social life. "It feels like anything's open if you're willing to put in the effort," says senior Jay Feldman, of Middletown, N.J.
Many wish there were a stronger sense of community on campus, which students say could be aided by more school-sponsored events, such as the annual Spring Fair. Administrators hope the new Brody Learning Commons will offer more common space on campus to boost Blue Jay unity.
All in all, students seem to have no trouble finding their niche. As senior Alexandra Larsen, of New York City, notes, "I think that everyone is happy being in their own small subset of people."