Take a tour of Harvey Mudd College, the tiny STEM 'bootcamp' outside Los Angeles whose graduates out-earn Harvard and Stanford alums

Tanza Loudenback/Business InsiderMudders are a studious bunch.

Located in Claremont, California is an 829-person liberal arts college that might go unnoticed to the uninitiated. It’s not a member of the Ivy League, nor does it have the celebrity of Stanford University, its neighbour to the north.

In fact, if you’re not familiar with the Claremont Consortium, you’ve probably never heard of the school.

Harvey Mudd College is a STEM powerhouse. It routinely shows up on lists that rank the best value colleges and, based on median salary, its graduates out-earn those from Harvard and Stanford
about 10 years into their careers.

With a price tag for tuition, room, and board of $US71,939 a year, it’s the most expensive college in the US. But the sticker price comes with a strong return on investment. Its peer institutions, like the California Institute of Technology, praise its computer science curriculum.

Business Insider recently had the opportunity to tour Mudd to see for ourselves, from the rooftop classroom to the underwater robotics lab.

Here’s what it’s like to attend Harvey Mudd College.

We arrived on Harvey Mudd's campus on a gloomy September day about two weeks into the 2017-2018 school year.

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The school is a member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium -- which includes Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, Pomona College, Scripps College, Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences. Mudd students, called Mudders, can take classes at any of the other member schools.

Not even on campus 10 minutes, we realised Mudd would provide an experience unlike many of the other schools we have toured.

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The campus was quiet. We'd come to find out it's due to the highly studious nature of the student body. During our five-hour visit, there was only one 15-minute period where campus seemed busy. Many were hurrying off to their next class or working on laptops.

Board racks are near every door and students grab their longboard, shortboard, or free lines -- two separate wooden boards that attach to your shoes with wheels underneath -- for the short ride to class. Scooters, bicycles, and even unicycles are also popular on campus.

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We sat in on an introductory computer science class. A hallmark of Mudd is the strong focus the school places on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) disciplines.

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Mudd embraces its academic rigour and describes its core curriculum as a 'boot camp in the STEM disciplines -- maths, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering -- as well as classes in writing and critical inquiry' that it says 'gives students a broad scientific foundation and the skills to think and to solve problems across disciplines.'

Every entering student must take a computer science class, a rare requirement for a liberal arts college. But Mudders must also graduate with a strong liberal-arts background, taking just as many courses in the humanities as they must in core introductory courses in the sciences.

The introductory computer-science course is intentionally broader than most intro courses. The school provides both basic and advanced sections of the intro course so students who might otherwise dominate the discussion don't intimidate students who are less familiar with computer science.

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Faculty found that in order to engage more women in STEM, they needed to design curriculum to remove intimidation and incorporate more hands-on scenarios to show that coding can be used to solve everyday problems.

These innovations paid off, and in 2016, Mudd graduated its first majority female class of computer science majors. Nationally, men make up more than 84% of undergraduates majoring in computer science, according to the Computing Research Association.

Mudd has accomplished the same feat for female engineers and physics majors, two other traditionally male-dominated majors.

But Mudd's rigorous workload and bootcamp mentality have also had some detrimental side effects. Last semester, in a highly unusual move for a college, the school shut down for two days as students protested multiple issues roiling the campus.

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Among the issues were:

• tensions about the heavy workload.

• The death of two Harvey Mudd students and the suicide of a Scripps College student, which dealt a blow to the tight-knit community.

• The results of a survey commissioned by the school to examine classroom environment. When the results leaked, tudents learned that some faculty members thought there had recently been a decline in the quality of admitted students.

Student frustration came to a head, and protests prompted administrators to shut down the school.

In response, administrators are trying to change the culture and an 'asking for help' initiative has cropped up this academic year.

'We've put in a lot of work in over the summer trying to make sure that were going to start off this semester in a better place,' Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe told Business Insider.

Klawe noted that workload issues have been an ongoing problem at the school and that the administration is currently redoing the core curriculum to solve the issues.

The curriculum revamp won't be solved overnight, but the school has begun seeking input from students, faculty, and alumni to address concerns.

Next, we met up with senior engineering student Andrea Vasquez, who took some time out of her busy schedule to show us around campus.

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Harvey Mudd senior Andrea Vasquez.

She is among the 75% of students who receive financial aid. The $US60,000 a year she receives in aid from Mudd helps immensely, according to Vasquez. She values the school's tight-knit community, and regards it as the school's biggest asset. 'People can make it through by having that community,' she said.

Vasquez said Mudd isn't all work and no play.

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Even though each academic year starts with a dry week -- meaning no alcohol allowed -- 'wet season' begins after. When Mudders have free time, students like to attend school-wide organised events like themed parties, dinners, and a cappella shows.

And, thanks to its southern California location, Mudd has a spacious rooftop deck that doubles as an outdoor classroom (pictured).

All students live on campus at Mudd. Nine co-ed dorm buildings are located on campus and each has its own culture, Vasquez told us.

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Dorm selection each year is based on seniority and chosen through a lottery system.

Vasquez showed us hers. She is a proctor -- similar to an RA -- for her dorm. Her primary job is to make sure everyone, particularly 'the frosh' are safe. With permission, students have free rein to paint the walls inside their dorms and decorate.

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Some of the dorms have private kitchens while others rely on a common space with a spacious kitchen, couches, and workspace.

Finally, we checked out an underwater robotics lab in the engineering building, where freshmen in an introductory engineering course were working through a hands-on practicum.

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Liz Orwin, the first female chair of the engineering department, attended Mudd in the 1990s and said the environment wasn't favourable for women in STEM. 'I often describe it as living in someone else's culture,' she said.

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Liz Orwin, the first female head of the engineering department at Harvey Mudd, and Nancy Lape, the assistant chair.

But the culture was starting to change by the time Orwin returned to teach at Mudd in the early 2000's. There are currently seven female faculty members in the engineering department out of the 24 full-time faculty.

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Some of that might be attributed to President Klawe, who became the first female president of Mudd, and who has worked tirelessly to improve representation in courses.

The lab was created in 2015 thanks to a grant from the Hearst Foundation. Previously, students used a faculty member's private swimming pool to deploy their robots.

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Now, after testing their underwater robotics systems, students deploy them into the ocean at the end of the course.

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After three busy years at Mudd, Vasquez is currently working on a project on flood management in Kenya, where she'll be travelling later this fall. She told us that, facing graduation, she's finally striking a balance between her course load and enjoying free time.

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