Students wade through Emerald Creek at Emerald Hollow Mine in search of gems. (photo Jason Joseph)


J-Term helps NCSSM build united spirit

Each year since NCSSM’s inception, the school has offered its Residential students and faculty the opportunity to shift gears a bit by spending time between the fall and spring semesters engaging together in special learning opportunities. Now held in January and called J-Term, this faculty-led experience consists of unique on- and off-campus courses and regional, national, or international travel.  

With the addition of a second campus in Morganton, NCSSM students can also get to know their peers on the opposite campus by enrolling in J-Term courses offered there, says Tonya Little, NCSSM-Morganton’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs, and the school’s overall leader of J-Term. 

“The idea was, ‘How can we capitalize on J-Term and use it to promote the one school, multiple campuses identity?’” she says. “The answer, obviously, was to open the courses to students from each campus.”

Though Ella Rose Holley, an NCSSM-Durham junior originally from Princeton High School in Johnston County, had spent time visiting Western North Carolina with her family, she had never been to Morganton. The J-Term Treasure Hunters course, offered by NCSSM-Morganton math teachers Hannah Schwartz and Jason Joseph, gave her that chance. 

Students wade through Emerald Creek at Emerald Hollow Mine in search of gems. (photo Jason Joseph)

Ella Rose got to see more than just the Morganton campus and its classrooms; she also got to wade through flowing waters in the area in search of precious gems as well as learn a bit about some of the Native people who first inhabited North Carolina’s foothills. 

“We spent a lot of time using waders and going into creeks and picking up dirt from the middle of the creek and then sifting through it to see what we could find,” she says. “We found that there was more stuff in the center of the creek versus on the outside, and so we would use the waders so we could find more.”

Perhaps most interesting to Ella Rose, however, was the familiarity she felt with a lot of Morganton’s students. “I’m from a rural area,” she says, “and a lot of their students seemed a lot like me, so I was able to really relate to them pretty quickly and make a lot of new friends.”

Everett Tucker, an NCSSM-Morganton senior from Martin L. Nesbitt Discovery Academy in Asheville, traveled east to Durham for the Introduction to Competitive Programming course taught by computer science instructor Robert Ward. Everett had already been to the Durham campus on a few occasions for previous academic competitions so, as a future computer science major interested in programming competitions, the draw for him was the course.

“I gained a lot of algorithmic skills,” Everett says, “and also, this course provided a great opportunity for me to learn a new programming language. Even though it wasn’t directly taught, I still learned C++ in this course and tried to implement that. This was a really good place to learn something new like that.”

Computer science instructor Robert Ward leads students through a lesson in how Trie data structures work. (photo Brian Faircloth)

Offering such niche courses is, in many respects, what J-Term is all about, says Little. “We have these wonderful faculty members who come to us with their own individual passions and skills and they’re teaching fabulous courses during J-Term,” she says. 

For Caroline Downs, an NCSSM-Durham junior originally from Atkins High School in Winston-Salem, NCSSM has opened new avenues of interest while expanding her existing knowledge of opportunities in math.

“I took a class in drawing in my first semester here, and I thought it was really interesting,” she says, “and my teacher encouraged me to use art in really unique ways. I’ve also been really interested in math since coming here. I didn’t realize the scope of math research and applied math concepts. I thought it’d be really interesting to kind of tie that in with something else I’m interested in, which is art.”

The J-Term course Math in Art, taught by Morganton math teacher Samantha Moore, provided Caroline that opportunity. Each day she and her classmates learned about a different topic in math, then created artwork such as acrylic paintings, drawings, watercolors, and mosaics, that illustrated in creative ways those mathematics concepts. 

“Going in, I think I was expecting a lot of art history stuff,” Caroline says, “but it was a lot more, like, actual hands-on art, which was really cool, and I got an introduction to a couple of different math concepts that I could pursue in the future.”

Participants in the Math in Art J-Term course show off their favorite artistic creations. (photo Samantha Moore)

Assistant Vice Chancellor Little is encouraged by the responses she has gotten from both students and faculty, and eager to see each school continue to develop a core set of J-Term courses exclusive to each campus that will encourage continued student exchanges in the future:

“What we don’t want is for some type of rivalry or competition to exist between the campuses, because we are one school. So if we can have these opportunities where students get to experience life on a different campus and interact with the students and meet the faculty and leadership, that will further promote the idea of one school.”

And it’s working already. Ella Rose, Everett, and Caroline noted how similar the academic culture at each campus is and how dedicated the teachers are. What is clearly different, though, is the size and location of each campus. Though the Durham campus is nowhere near the acreage of NCSSM-Morganton, Everett says Durham and its more-than-double student headcount felt bigger. Ella Rose noted how quiet Morganton was at night, and how dark the night sky. 

“There are stars in the sky there,” she says, “and I would go back sometime if the opportunity arises. I absolutely would.”