Dearest Math Lover (aka Anathema),
Will you tell us a little more about ACME? What is a typical day like? Is it worth it? Are you still alive?
-questioning future ACME student
HECK YES I WILL TELL YOU ABOUT ACME!!!!!
Okay, so ever since starting ACME, I feel like the tenor of my life has drastically changed, and thus feel a constant compulsion to tell other people all about what ACME is like so they can understand me. Anyways, what this means is that I'm super happy you asked this question, and am overjoyed to be able to write all about that strange experience which is ACME.
Before I go into all the other aspects, I think it's useful to give an overview of what is actually taught, and the general structure of ACME. When most people (including the professors) talk about ACME classes, all that they talk about is that it's hard, and it will equip you really well to handle vast amounts of data. This translates into some mystery surrounding the actual course material, which I will hopefully help clear up for you.
The core is composed of four math classes per semester: two programming labs and two written math courses. For Juniors, the written classes are every Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 9-11, and the labs are held once a week, each from 9-11 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. As soon as you start the core, you are locked into taking these exact classes at these exact times. Within ACME, every single student has identical schedules--excluding non-ACME classes--which facilitates strong study groups, because everyone has the same homework they all need to be working on.
This same kind of rigid class structure is maintained all throughout the core, and so for both Juniors and Seniors.
To give you a taste for the difficultly of the subject material, here is a direct quote from the cover of my textbook:
[The creators of ACME] are in the process of achieving something extraordinary: the creation of an entire curriculum of rigorous graduate-level applied mathematics...
Some of the material covered, like infinite-dimensional vector spaces (note: the Junior core is devoted to developing the tools to deal with such spaces--we haven't gotten into them yet) aren't taught as part of a program to undergraduates anywhere else in the world.
All that said, what are the classes actually like? First, I'm going to describe the written classes. The prerequisite that resembles them the most is Theory of Analysis, or Math 341. We are treated to a string of theorems, propositions, corollaries, lemmata and their respective proofs. In the Mathematical Analysis class, these theorems focus on establishing the foundations of linear algebra. As example, we do modular arithmetic, but with entire vector spaces (instead of equivalence classes we look at co-sets). The other class, Algorithm Optimization and Design (or something like that--I might have the order of the words wrong there) focuses on building techniques/math knowledge to optimize algorithms. It's not uncommon to have to code our own algorithms in Python to complete the homeworks for that class. We look at things like how fast algorithms converge to a solution, temporal and spatial complexity, etc.
The programming classes are very similar to CS 235. They're "taught" by T.A.'s (ACME seniors), but really instead of teaching anything, the classes are really just two-hour blocks for us to work on the assigned labs. All the programming is in Python. Most of the problems contained in the labs are reasonably simple and fast to figure out, though some of them require more time and thought, like programming an entire game.
So a few months ago, I mentioned a poster I found in the Talmage advertising ACME, with the caption: "Want monotonically increasing unbounded homework?--Ask ACME. That poster is incredibly accurate.
Each written class assigns a homework set that is due the next day of class at 9 am sharp. On average, those homeworks take 4-5 hours to complete apiece, sometimes longer. This relentless load translates into a constant rush just to keep up. The time required to complete the labs is more variable, but if you're a slow coder like me, than they average 10+ hours each. Finally, we have reading assignments due every day. For most of these readings we just need to take quizzes on Learning Suite, but for one, we needed to create a blog specially to document our reading experiences. Summing up these average homework times, ACME assigns roughly 50 hours of homework per week. Add that onto the 10 hours spent in ACME classes, a part time job, and staying on top of other classes, and you're looking at ~100 hours every week purely devoted to attending classes, studying, and working. To put that in perspective, a week has 168 hours in it. If you sleep for 8 hours a day (I no longer really do), that leaves a scant 12 hours per week in which to do things like eat, shower, laundry, go to church, grocery shopping, transport yourself places, write for some random Q/A website--basically all the normal functions of life. In short, to get some things done, other things slip. You don't devote any time to studying for non-ACME classes, fail at your church calling, start sleeping in the Talmage (just want to point out here that while I have slept in the Talmage late at night, I have not ever stayed the entire night there, and it is my goal to never do so), and get used to making the decision of what can go today.
When other things come up that you have to do, like get an internship, it becomes the choice of what to give up becomes even harder.
ACME has a very distinctive culture. Bonds of friendship are swiftly forged in the crucible of learning as much as you can as fast as you can. Everyone around you understands exactly what it's like to be as insanely busy as you because they're in the same boat. All the homework is done together because it would be nigh impossible to do alone, so you also spend all of your time together (around 60 hours per week).
On the first day, one of the directors of ACME told us our cohort would become like our family, and that is already very true. One of the unwritten laws of being in ACME is that if anyone asks you for help you give it, and in turn you can always ask for help. It's common for people to stay even after they've completed their homework in order to help others finish the homework.
While we can't return the favor to them, this law extends to the Seniors. You can ask any Senior for help, and they will put down whatever it is they are currently working on and help you. Speaking of Seniors, they also give a lot of moral support. Like, they'll drop into our study rooms to ask if anyone has died yet (none so far).
Going along with the law of helping, the main vibe of ACME is collaboration. It is the least competitive atmosphere I've ever been in. The goal is to get everyone on the same page. People's strengths are all celebrated, not envied, and people use those strengths to help other's with their weaknesses. Like, the second day of ACME, I mentioned how I'm not good with programming, and have trouble with the labs. Immediately multiple people said they had my back and would get me through those labs. And they've held to that promise.
Okay, so I know this is really close to culture, but I still have more to say about the general experience.
There are a series of rooms in the Talmage set aside for ACME students. We have really comfortable study rooms that only we have access to, microwaves, food cupboards, and a fridge, to list a few amenities. Also, there are a surprising number of math events with free food that we all take advantage of. Like, we were able to hoard some of the leftovers from one such event in the ACME fridge and it fed all the ACME students who knew about it for days.
Finally, it's fun. Like, even though we have insane homework, we aren't always super focused. Or focused at all sometimes. We have a tendency to go off on random tangents like talking about bees. Or coming up with a proof of insanity. Or envisioning what the show "Math with Bob Ross" would be like. I have literally slipped off my chair because I'm laughing so hard while "studying".
Actually, we joke around around and laugh a lot. And make bad math puns. It's pretty great.
Is it Worth it
It definitely is for me. I have a really strong feeling that this is where I'm supposed to be right now. I love the things I'm learning, and even though it's hard, I even enjoy the struggle. Also, it's kind of fun that social life gets blended with school life because it's all just ACME life. And even though it is ridiculously intense, everybody somehow finds the time to do non-ACME stuff. Like, I have a goal to become a beginner's version of adequate at capoeira this semester. And, you know, I'm obviously still writing here.
Having said that, ACME isn't worth it for everyone. If you're going to put yourself through this amount of work, you'd better have a dang good reason. After all, if all you're after is money, you can major in business, other majors are challenging if you like a challenge (though none are, in my opinion, as challenging as ACME), even a double major in CS and math will arm you with the dual coding and math skills. In short, if you do ACME, it will have to be because you want to be there.
So there you have it. Also sorry because I just realized you only asked for a "little more about ACME", and I just wrote you a novel.
~The Still Surviving Anathema