Wisdom Talley ’20, a student in the "Building Math Puzzles and Games" Mini-Term, explains “Gardeners of the Galaxy” to fifth- and sixth-graders at the Duke School.


For Mini-Term students, the classroom is a kitchen, a forest, or a glass artist’s studio

In one form or another, NCSSM’s Mini-Term has been part of the NCSSM residential experience since the school first opened in 1980. Early students called the academic opportunity Special Projects Week. In time, the opportunities expanded and the name evolved to Mini-Term. Regardless of what students have called it, the break from traditional instruction has been a staple of the school’s academic life for 40 years.

Times are changing again. Just as Special Projects Week yielded to Mini-Term, so, too, will Mini-Term soon become a historical name. Beginning with the 2020-21 academic year and a switch to academic semesters, Mini-Term will give way to a new experience called J-Term, or January Term.

So, as we say goodbye to Mini-Term, we take a look back at some of the last projects to appear under that banner just weeks before students had to depart campus early in response to the threat of COVID-19.

Seniors Tony Feng, Stephanie Zhang, Katherine Reeves, and Gillian Gavenus, and junior Henry Heider prepare ingredients on a lab table.

A Chemist in the Kitchen

The smell of freshly chopped onions is the last thing one might expect to encounter wafting out of a science lab at NCSSM, but that is exactly what’s drifting down the hallway. Inside the classroom several students in the “A Chemist in the Kitchen” Mini-Term work together at a long lab table, chopping and dicing and mixing all kinds of ingredients that will end up in Indian dishes such as dal, tomato chutney, naan bread, and duck egg brownies. It’s the onions, though, that command the olfactory system’s attention.

Moving about the assortment of slow cookers and bowls of water coming to a boil is Gina Stewart ’86. Stewart led the Mini-Term course to reconnect with her alma mater and put her Ph.D. in organic chemistry to use.

“I want to help the students gain a better understanding of the basic molecular transformations that occur in cooking,” Stewart says as she pauses briefly from managing the pop-up kitchen. “I want them to understand how humans and cooking co-evolved, and to become informed consumers of food.”

It’s a fascinating exploration of how basic chemical properties affect the foods we eat and the tastes we enjoy. And it was not without some unintended drama. Normal operations while cooking in the lab earlier in the week inadvertently led to a fire alarm briefly evacuating the entire school. Seems the particulate sensors in a physics lab are especially sensitive to Maillard reactions run in a cast iron vessel. Or, in layman’s terms: the aroma of skillet-seared chicken.

The creation and sharing of food is a common act of humanity that brings people together no matter the ingredients or geographic location. Whether Middle Eastern or Asian dishes, or meals with European or American origins, you can rest assured that, when it’s time to eat, it’s the science that binds.

NCSSM junior Ella Hearn explains “Escape the Black Hole” to Duke School fifth- and sixth-graders.

Building Math Puzzles and Games

NCSSM math instructors Nick Koberstein and Ashley Loftis (NCSSM 2007) watched closely as students in their Mini-Term course used math to travel through the universe on a fabric game board made of several sheets stitched together. The game, called “Space Escape,” is so large that it covers a significant portion of the classroom floor. Students roll dice, then determine the best path forward both to collect supplies and return to their space base without being destroyed. The shortest path is not always the safest; a flashlight in a cardboard contraption manually rotated around the sun by a student managing the game fires deadly solar flares. If it hits you, you lose a supply or, worse, have to return to the beginning.

The game, and others like it, Loftis explains, are designed to teach mathematical concepts in a fun and engaging environment. “The real value here is that students are able to use math in a fun way to illustrate for young kids mathematical principles they may otherwise be intimidated by. Besides all of the algebra and calculational procedures, they can sort of think abstractly and come up with things that are interesting to them and to the middle school students that they present this to.”

Other games, such as “Gardeners of the Galaxy” and “Escape the Black Hole,” use a similar mix of strategy and math. In “Escape the Black Hole,” students must escape using the roll of dice and addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to maneuver themselves through a numbered grid representing various mathematical principles governing prime numbers, perfect squares, and the power of two. 

“The Math Puzzles and Games Mini-Term was a great experience,” says NCSSM senior Wisdom Talley. “Not only was I able to interact with people I didn’t know, I was able to practice my creativity to create a game for others to play. Watching all the games come together made me proud of myself and my peers.”

At the end of the week the students transported their games to the Duke School where they presented to eight groups of fifth- and sixth-graders.

The kids — big and small — loved it. “It went so well,” Loftis says. “Oh my gosh it went so well.”

“Encounters With Trees” Mini-Term participants (L-R) Jules Taylor ’20, Madeline Atchison ’20, Sarah Ellen Dean ’21, instructor Ormand Moore, Grace Sullivan ’21, Ruth Wu ’20, Kayla Ansari ’20, Lindsey Hiatt ’20, Sarah Perdue ’21, and Tiffany Vargas ’20.

Encounters With Trees

“When we started, most of us couldn’t have said what a cedar tree looked like or what the difference between an oak and a maple was,” says Ormand Moore, Instructor of Humanities and the faculty sponsor of the Mini-Term experience “Encounters With Trees.”

“By mid-week, we could argue knowledgeably with each other over whether a pine was a loblolly or a shortleaf.” 

Moore’s Mini-Term considered humanity’s relationship to trees by pairing explorations of nearby forests with a reading of The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental novel by Richard Powers. The novel, Moore says, “gave us a lot to think about” as they searched for chestnut and blackjack oaks and Virginia pine on Occoneechee Mountain and sycamore, river birch, and sweetgum by the Eno River.

Senior Tiffany Vargas was surprised by the diversity she found in the forest. “It was truly fascinating to learn how very different trees are from each other, even without leaves or blooms,” she says. “I never paid close enough attention to realize that they are all very unique. 

“I did not think I could have so much fun with just nature to entertain me for that long,” she continues. “I’ve developed a whole new level of appreciation and admiration of trees and nature in general.” 

“This Mini-Term gave me the opportunity to rekindle my love with nature and take a break from the everyday,” says junior Sarah Dean. “At one point I had a really cool moment by myself. I had just crossed a part of the Eno [River] by walking over a fallen tree and started exploring in the woods. I was listening to ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by the Grateful Dead and singing along, surrounded by green woods, and I felt overwhelmingly happy. I can’t exactly explain what I felt in that moment, simply because it was so unique.”

Alyssa Paull ’20 turns glass in the Pittsboro studio of glass artist Jonathan Michael Davis.

Introduction to Glassblowing

A little ways down an unpaved road in Pittsboro, under towering pine trees and a brilliant blue sky, a clearing opens to reveal a small red, metal-roofed building with large block letters “A-r-T” hung on its outer wall. Inside, are 11 NCSSM students and their Mini-Term sponsor, chemistry instructor Kat Cooper. For the week of Mini-Term, they’re all students of glass artist Jonathan Michael Davis, who is teaching them the art and science of glassblowing in this studio he designed and built. 

Through the studio door, goggles on, the students stand in pairs at their torches, large tubular vents overhead. They take turns at their respective flames, shaping glass rods until they’re ready to be blown into bulb-like ornaments. The process requires a lot of spinning and a keen awareness of gravity’s pull.

“My arms always hurt,” says Alyssa Paull ’20. She explains glass physics with a metaphor we can all understand: it’s like melty cheese. If you take the perfect grilled cheese in both hands and tear it in two, the cheese strands stretch and puuuuuull apart, like hot, melted glass — except with glass, that stretching stops at some point.

For the first half of their week together, Jonathan Michael Davis has been teaching the students how to make marbles. It sounds simple at first, but once you hear junior Chloe Monson explain the process, you’ll understand why it takes days of practice to finesse — you begin with a 12 mm glass rod, then working with heat and gravity, constantly turn the rod to “gather” the melted end of glass into a sphere. Press that down into colored frit (granular crushed glass) scattered on a graphite slab, then with more turning, work the glass back over itself and into a sphere again — melting, turning and smoothing over and over to achieve roundness. With the help of a thinner rod (a “punty”), you disconnect this marble you’ve formed from its original rod, and after more melting, smoothing and molding, into the kiln it goes, for a long slow cooldown.

Chloe shows off a couple of her “implosion” marbles, the insides of which look like some kind of deep sea coral.

Chloe Monson ’21, a student in the glassblowing Mini-Term.

With Mini-Term ending soon, the students had only a day and a half left to turn, twist and blow their glass creations before starting third trimester — NCSSM’s final trimester before the switch to a semester calendar.

Little did any of us know then what a strange and trying third trimester it would turn out to be.

Little did anyone know that NCSSM residential students would have only two weeks left at school before being sent home as a precaution against the spread of a global pandemic. Or that a statewide stay-at-home order would further limit students’ ability to associate with friends and family. 

Perhaps this insight by instructor Ormand Moore, who led the “Encounters With Trees” Mini-Term, can be of help to each one of us now, wherever we are, as we look for ways to cope and make the best of the current situation:

“Quiet time out in nature every day was most salutary to our minds,” Moore said, “especially the way it slowed us down — trees operate on a different time scale, and for a few days, so did we. l doubt any of us will pass by trees the way we used to, unaware and uninterested.” 

Beatrice Moss, Assistant Director of Communications, contributed to this story.