From Wall Street tweets to world tours from Zoom seats, J-Term gave students deep understanding

Student teams in Taylor Gibson and Dan Teague’s “Real-world Data Science with Credit Suisse” J-Term presented their work after spending two weeks analyzing the volume and sentiment of tweets for insightful patterns relative to stock prices. (Graph key not shown here.)

In early February 2020, a cruise ship returned to Yokohama, Japan, the last stop in a 16-day round trip voyage. On board were more than 2,600 passengers. Covid-19 was beginning to spread rapidly among them. The ship and its entire complement of passengers — the equivalent of a small town — was put under quarantine, afloat just shy of the dock.   Like the virus, word of the onboard outbreak began to spread through news and social media outlets. Wall Street responded accordingly, and the stock price for the large cruise ship company began to drop as investors grew concerned.   Nearly a year later, that outbreak and subsequent social media response became part of a case study for a team of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics students in a special research experience, “Real-world Data Science with Credit Suisse,” organized by employee volunteers from the financial firm and led by NCSSM math instructors Taylor Gibson and Dan Teague.   The two-week project was part of NCSSM’s January Term, or J-Term, the latest evolution of a long, storied part of the NCSSM experience in which regular classes are suspended for a short period of time in winter/early spring to allow students to delve deeply into projects or particular interests that fall outside the usual NCSSM academic catalog. Previous iterations were called Special Projects Week and Mini-Term. This year, intensive J-Term courses (all virtual this time because of the pandemic) focused on everything from the origin and evolution of superheroes to the pathophysiology of common human diseases to understanding social injustice through the use of mathematical modeling.    For the Credit Suisse-organized project, five teams of students worked closely with volunteers from the firm with expertise in finance, data science, and financial services. Using data science and data analysis, students scraped large sets of data from Twitter, then analyzed both the volume and sentiment of tweets for insightful patterns relative to stock prices.   NCSSM seniors Khanh Le and Nick Sortisio’s team hypothesized a direct influence of Twitter activity on the impacted company stock, tracking tweets over several months, beginning the day the ship was quarantined.   The response on Twitter was harsh, says Le, who came to NCSSM from West Brunswick High School. The quarantine “led to a negative and really polarizing reaction” online.   What the team learned about that response, however, surprised them. “Whether or not Twitter is a viable predictor [of stock performance] or a reliable predictor, long term, I think the answer to that is probably ‘No’ in most cases,” says Sortisio, a product of the Montessori School of Raleigh.   Though a strong correlation between Twitter and stock performance was absent, Le still feels the platform is a player. “Stock prices change with a lot of inputs, not just from Twitter, but Twitter certainly has a role,” he says, suggesting that the negative Twitter sentiment about cruising in the time of Covid may have influenced the public’s confidence, and subsequently the stock performance of that brand.   Neither student considers their team’s research conclusive due to the time and resource-limited nature of their work, but they still found the short course incredibly beneficial.    “There were very few people — myself included — who knew really anything about finance going in,” Sortisio says. “It was really an amazing exercise in taking a skill set and applying it to something that you were not necessarily very familiar with.”   Le, who had just completed a data science course at NCSSM prior to the project, anticipates a payoff. “I want to major in either business or economics in college, and so I felt like the blend between data science and finance in this particular J-Term project was really intriguing,” he says. The insight he gained will allow him to “actually have some intuitive sense, intuitive knowledge about what we can do and can’t do with social media for business.”   Madison Batten, a technical analyst at Credit Suisse and a 2014 NCSSM alumna, has played a key role in facilitating the firm’s partnership with the school. Her first-hand knowledge of NCSSM’s mission allowed her to promote the school as a philanthropic opportunity for Credit Suisse; her experience as a math student in Teague’s class led to the development of the “Real-world Data Science” project.   For many Credit Suisse volunteers, Batten says, working with NCSSM students is an eye-opener. “A lot of our volunteers come away from the experience and are like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe that they’re high schoolers!’” she says.   Madison Gardner was one of those volunteers. “I was very impressed by how much the students had managed to accomplish in a two-week period!” Gardner said. “It was especially interesting to see the many different ways that students tackled the same challenge.”   Gibson, NCSSM’s Dean of Mathematics, is appreciative. “The expertise and financial support that Credit Suisse provided brought these projects to life for our students in a way that’s impossible to do in a typical classroom,” he says. “You won’t find these kinds of opportunities in a textbook.”   Gibson and Teague’s Credit Suisse-organized project was just one of a number of experiences offered during NCSSM’s first-ever J-Term. Read on for a brief look into other projects completed during the term.

American Constitutional Law

Kyle Hudson, a humanities instructor at NCSSM and holder of a law degree, led students in a two-week-long examination of the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting U.S. constitutional law. Through in-depth discussions of landmark cases involving such hot-button topics as free speech, freedom of religion, reproductive rights, racial discrimination, sex discrimination, and LGBTQ+ rights, students gained invaluable insight into the complexities involved in establishing the rules by which our society operates.    Sam Hiner, a senior originally from South Iredell High School in Mooresville, said he was drawn to the course because he thought an understanding of the judiciary’s role in interpreting law would benefit his planned future in politics. Before politics, however, Hiner was focused on mathematics, and he noted an interesting similarity between numbers and constitutional law.   “I enjoy being able to solve problems and think through these logical systems,” he says. “In constitutional law, it’s the same work, but instead of using numbers you’re using language to piece together logical structures that have real impacts for people.”   Junior Briana Brown, who came to NCSSM from Riverside High School in Durham, is considering a future in STEM and law. Enrolling in the course allowed her to test the waters to see how she might like constitutional law.    “It was really, really fun,” Brown says. And eye-opening, too. The nuance and fluidity of the Constitution in many instances surprised her. “I wasn’t expecting the different interpretations of the Constitution and how that factors into Supreme Court decisions,” she says. Different readings — from literal to contextual — “totally change the outcome of law.”   “I think that what the students took away is that even if you have firm commitments on issues, there are arguments that can be made by very bright people on the other side that you really have to engage with,” says Hudson. “It may not change [your] mind, but it helps you better understand what other people are saying and helps you refine your own position and make an argument that’s ultimately more sophisticated.”   Traveling Around the World in Your PJs J-Term J-Term - Forrest Hinton

Traveling Around the World in Your PJs

Travel has always been a popular part of the historical iterations of what is now J-Term. Though the pandemic put a halt to hopping planes, trains, and buses, it did not stop the school’s students from virtually traveling the world in their pajamas.   NCSSM math instructor Forrest Hinton and his J-Term students spent their time “traveling” to diverse locations around the world. Assignments and readings provided context for the visits, while Zoom allowed students to engage in real time with a Denali National Park ranger in Alaska and an olive farmer in Spain who took students on a tour of his farm and home. In between, students also traveled to Peru, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Washington, D.C., and Southeast Asia. It all combined to deepen students’ appreciation of the world in which they live.   With a new destination each day, the virtual format was a great way to cover a lot of ground. It also provided equity of access for students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.   For Kaiya Hubbard, a senior originally from Massey Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville, the virtual trip to Nigeria was revealing. “What surprised me most was how big the urban areas were,” Hubbard says, noting the common depictions of African countries as rural. “I was shocked at how little I knew about the country.”   She didn’t have much knowledge of Spain, either, but after learning about the country’s food and art, she’s eager to visit in person one day. “I was fascinated,” she says.   “It’s incredible what you can accomplish online,” says Hinton, who found the course to be even more successful than he had hoped. “Students told me they got a lot out of it, and I was impressed with how engaged they were.” Even in their PJs.    


What is life? Are there other planets besides our own that support, or could support, life? And how might we detect them?   These are some of the questions that physics instructor Jacob Brown and biology instructor Erin Quinlan posed to the students in their two-week Astrobiology course. The interdisciplinary approach encouraged students to consider the multitude of factors at play when considering the possibility of life beyond earth.   Quinlan presented students with the biologist’s approach, exploring life and its structures as we know it here on Earth at the microbial level, particularly in extreme environments such as deep sea vents, geothermal vents, and acidic pools. Understanding how earthly organisms thrive in such seemingly inhospitable homes can help a student better understand how organisms might adapt to environments found on or within celestial bodies.   “We have all these amazing bacteria and microorganisms here that helped shape our planet, and they’re still there, and they’re still functioning,” Quinlan says. “I think that got the students excited about expanding what they thought of as alien life and they just ran with it.”   To know where to look for life, students needed to understand what they were looking at. Brown provided the astronomer’s perspective, moving students toward an understanding of how stars and exoplanets are constructed and how that may or may not encourage life forms.   “What are the properties of stars that make [us] want to look more closely at one than another?” he prompted students to consider. “What are exoplanets? What are their properties that might make them able to sustain life?”   For senior Bryson Loflin, from Gray Stone Day School near his hometown of Salisbury, the course was something he hadn’t anticipated being able to take.   “I’ve always been interested in and fascinated by astrobiology. I never thought I’d actually have the chance to study it. A lot of what surprised me is how little we know about what life could look like [in other places]. We talked about different theories … and how life could be similar to what’s on Earth, but really we have no idea. This class really just emphasized all the possibilities that there are for life in outer space and how incredible it is and how incredible life even is on earth.”   As a final project, students had to combine all they had learned from the biological and astronomical approaches to create an entire ecosystem — alien life included — that illustrated how and where other living things may be found.   The search for life beyond earth doesn’t have to be measured against the discovery of a civilization, Quinlan says. “Finding any life at this point would be the most amazing thing.”

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