Students in the Bread Making J-Term show off their pretzels.


January Term returns to the classroom and the road

The beginning of each calendar year at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics always brings with it a renewed sense of energy. The arrival of 2022 also marked the annual return of an academic tradition at NCSSM when students get the chance to participate in a unique learning experience called January Term. 

From on-campus research courses in math, science, and the humanities to adventurous trips to such places as Arizona, Utah, Florida, Yellowstone National Park, New York City, New Orleans, and Morganton, N.C, this year’s J-Term provided students with nearly 100 short courses to choose from.

J-Term 2022 unexpectedly began much like last year’s – in a virtual format due once again to the pandemic. After three days, students transitioned to in-person instruction that was then altered by a winter weather event. Despite the continued challenges, J-Term marked another turn toward long-sought familiarity.

“Implementing the first full-length January Term has been exhilarating!” says Angela Teachey, NCSSM’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs. “Our faculty and students have been extraordinarily flexible in the face of anticipated and unanticipated challenges.” 

One of the courses available to students was Engineering the Human: A Cultural History, led by NCSSM engineering instructor John Kirk. The course explored the rise of robots, the issues they were meant to address, and the questions they have raised about our own humanity. More than 2,000 years of robotic evolution and speculation were considered, from water-powered clocks in the third century BCE, to 20th-century science fiction.

“A lot of the kids loved the history part more than anything else,” Kirk says of the students’ surprise at the ancient origins of what most consider to be a very modern idea. At its core, he adds, the course was “more an examination of human beings and how they can use technology for good or for bad and what it means to be human.”

RayShaun Williams, a junior from Clinton, N.C., said, “The class was pretty invigorating and helped me understand the difference between an automaton, a cyborg and an android,” adding, “and it definitely gave me some different perspectives on what would happen if artificial intelligence [beings] could think for themselves.”

Kirk’s course wasn’t the only project investigating a rising. NCSSM science instructors Amy Sheck, Megan Alvord, Nina Kornegay, and Jon Davis investigated the history and science of Bread Making. From the origins of wheat taught by Davis to a bake-off to determine the best sourdough starter (Sheck’s won), students gained a deeper understanding of how the bread on their plate came to be. The students made four different kinds of bread – lean dough, enriched dough, boiled dough, and sourdough – and employed different techniques for each bread. Guest speakers from North Carolina State University spoke to the students about the science behind fermentation and the breeding of wheat for disease resistance.

“The course turned out to be a multifaceted, interdisciplinary creation that was as unique as each loaf of bread,” says Alvord. 

Ethelyn Ofei, a senior from Harrisburg, N.C., was surprised by how far breadmaking dates back in history. “Because of this class,” she says, “I think of breadmaking as a real-world intersection of science, art, and history.”

Obviously, numbers were the focus of the Research in Mathematics J-Term, led by NCSSM math instructors Tamar Avineri, Christine Belledin, Floyd Bullard, and Kevin Ji. Students working in groups were given a selection of problems from which they chose one to focus on, then spent the next several days utilizing mathematical fields such as graph theory, abstract number theory, and discrete math to work toward a deeper understanding.

It was an engaging introduction to research for the students, says Avineri, who pointed out that many, if not most, of the students had no significant prior math research experience. “The only prerequisite,” she says, “was an interest in working on a math problem for two weeks.”

And interested they were. Though students were given the option to switch after the first day or two to a different problem, none did, perhaps because the nature of the problems allowed students to access their chosen problem from multiple points with multiple possible outcomes. That lack of a single right-or-wrong answer, Avineri says, “seemed to be rewarding for a number of students. A lot of them had this, ‘aha’ moment.”

“The amount of creativity and energy that everyone put into the class was really encouraging to see,” says senior Mason McElroy, from Charlotte. “I genuinely loved exploring topics that were brand new to me. What may seem like a silly game throwing around prime numbers can reveal fascinating properties that are timeless facts, something beyond humanity.”

The numbers in Hospital Price Transparency: Are NC Hospitals in Compliance? were all preceded by dollar signs. Led by NCSSM math instructors Dan Teague and Mahmoud Harding, the course explored the degree to which hospitals around the state and country are complying with the Hospital Price Transparency rule, put in place in 2021 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The rule requires hospitals to publish their prices for services in an easily understandable format so that consumers may, when possible, more easily shop for medical services ahead of time. 

Students in the course used data science to provide an assessment and analysis of how hospitals in North Carolina are following the transparency rule and what the data indicates about the relative cost and care between different hospital systems.

“The kids really jumped into it and worked hard and they looked at a lot of things,” says Teague. “Some looked at whether a person could reasonably understand the information a hospital provided, some looked to see what information was missing from a hospital’s price list, others looked at whether hospitals charge more in rural or urban areas.”

The students’ results yield a mixed bag. Senior Kendal Win, from Fayetteville, was part of a group that developed a system that rated hospitals’ price transparency based on factors including searchability, quality of price information, and amount of personal information required. “It was intriguing to see the range of formats that hospitals use,” Win explained. “Some price estimators were user-friendly websites and others were unformatted spreadsheets.”

Though it’s still uncertain what NCSSM’s new normal will look like post-pandemic, the most recent J-Term is proof that every day brings us one step closer to it thanks to the determination of staff and students. “These J-Term experiences would not have been possible,” Teachey says, “without the help and support of the entire NCSSM community.”