I just got back from UIUC in order to see if that is someplace I would want to go for graduate school. It was pretty exciting.
On Thursday, we got there and had a "social event" where we got to have pizza, play games that they had put out (like Texas Hold-Em and Stratego) and talk to each other. There were several professors there too. One of the other prospective graduate students brought along his wife, who was applying for a Masters in public policy, and obviously just stood there in confusion when we were talking about all our computer science stuff. We also got free rooms at the local Hampton Inn. (It's too bad that we didn't get to stay at the hotel a few blocks away, because then she could have said, "I may not be a computer science student, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.")
On Friday we had the majority of the events. I got to see lots of cool demonstrations, such as a projector that could project onto a 3 dimensional surface. By this I mean that there is a white box (or some other shape) in the middle of the room, and the projector senses the shape of the box and alters its projection to conform to the shape and position of the box. I also got to see the robotics lab, where they had a course in the middle of the room that they had modified Roombas to navigate around. Finally, I got to try out the graphics lab's "head scanner" - a device that scans the shape of your head with a laser and produces a 3D computer model. The first time I tried it the device went round and round my head but didn't produce any data. The person operating it said that the fuse on the scanning laser must have been blown and would need to be replaced. However, she soon realized that the problem was that the laser was simply turned off. We tried again but this time she started it while I was still climbing back into the chair, so I had to duck to avoid getting hit by the swinging arm. When it came out my head had no face. The third time we tried, it worked, but my glasses reflected the laser in such a way that the computer thought that my face had large spikes sticking out horizontally. I tried to save this image and email it to myself so I could put it up on this blog, but the computer's Internet connection didn't work. I then tried to take a picture of the computer screen showing the image with my cell phone, but it was out of batteries.
I did however get to talk to several professors, including Michael Heath, who knew two professors at Maryland that I have had classes with; Steven LaValle, who literally wrote the book on automatic algorithms for planning movements of robots, and Jeff Erickson, who told us all about what it's like to live in Illinois, including the fact that all employees of the State of Illinois (and this includes employees of UIUC) have to take mandatory "ethics training" every year. However, this "ethics training" must not be working very will, considering that apparently 3 out of the last 5 governors of Illinois have ended up in prison (and that's not even counting Rod Blagojevich). Also he said he knows someone who lives near the statehouse in Chicago, and he's actually seen politicians walk out of the statehouse carrying large bags full of cash.
After dinner Friday night, we had a scavenger hunt where we got into groups and had to find locations in downtown Champaign. It was problematic because a lot of the pictures we were supposed to take were of items located inside buildings, and whoever wrote it up forgot that we would be doing this at around 9:00 at night, when a lot of those buildings would be closed. But we were able to find lots of the buildings by putting them into a GPS.
Overall, I think that UIUC will be a place that I want to go for graduate school. I would probably choose it over University of Maryland just because it gives me a chance to go to a different palce, live in a different area, meet new people, etc. And despite being farther away from a major city than University of Maryland is, there still seems to be plenty to do, especially outdoor activities like bike trails and mountains. And that's not the only perk - the local public library even rents video games.
(P.S. I have no idea whether there actually is a Holiday Inn Express anywhere near UIUC. I just put that line in there because it was funny.)