LIMESTONE, Maine — Ever since the first students walked through the doors of The Maine School of Science and Mathematics in September 1995, the school has repeatedly garnered a reputation as one of the best magnet school’s in the nation and as Maine’s top high school.
Much of that acclaim has come because of the student success brought on by a rigorous curriculum, mandatory study hours and top-notch students and instructors.
Part of that curriculum includes a 10-day slot of time after the fall semester and winter break named January Term, popularly known as the “J-Term.” It is a time where the students dedicate themselves to a particular course or project, whether they be at the school, at an internship of their choosing, or through travel or research in an educational setting or in a foreign country.
Students at the magnet school on Saturday credited teachers with making the J-Term offerings more varied, interesting and far-reaching over the years so that every student has brought something back from that experience and into the classroom, year after year.
“You don’t have to necessarily leave campus, but you do have to take part,” William Popov, 17, a junior at MSSM, said Saturday. “But I think that everyone looks forward to that, especially the people that have chosen internships, which are things that they have hand-picked and set up for themselves. Those are the ones that you usually hear the most rewarding things about.”
There are three options for J-Term: in-depth and on-campus courses, organized trips, or participation in an internship.
One of the strongest features of J-Term is that it allows students the opportunity to customize and shape their experience. Students are not forced into a particular field of study, rather they can pick a subject that appeals to them. Not all J-Term courses are math-, science- or research-based. Past topics have included literature, robotics, World War II film, debate and more.
Popov spent his first year in the Bahamas at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and Island School, which allows people of all ages to learn about tropical environments and sustainable design. Students studied marine biology, how fish adapt to water temperature and more. During his second, year he did an internship with the Maine Forest Service in East Millinocket. His most recent J-Term was spent in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where students studied the language and immersed themselves in the local culture.
Patrick Massard, 16, a sophomore from Machias, visited the Bahamas his first year and just returned from Puerto RIco. He said that he especially enjoyed his time conducting research and experiments at the Cape Eleuthera Institute.
“They had educational stuff for us to do every day, but we also had free time every day,” he explained. “We learned a lot, and I learned a lot about how fish reach to water temperature and water resistance and about their anatomy. When we came back during that year, it really had a big impact on how I learned, especially in chemistry and anatomy classes.”
Massard said that he has found, however, that the majority of the MSSM students tend to stay on campus for J-Term, something that Patrick Blackstone, 18, of Augusta, and Rachel Olugbemi, 17, of Presque Isle, both have done.
Blackstone, a senior, has done two on-campus courses in organic chemistry and algebraic topology, and did an internship at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. He said that he chose to stay on campus because of the subject matter and because they were similar to graduate-level courses.
“The instructors have always seemed to up the game every year, in terms of offering us more to choose from in terms of variety,” he said. “Everyone here has a thirst for knowledge, so I think its just a matter of finding subjects that will appeal to as many kids as possible to make it worth the school’s while. And its very hands-on, with demonstrations and lots of different energy, so I have found it is a great way to have a break between semesters and to help you get back in the swing of things before it is time to really hit the books again.”
Olugbemi, a senior, agreed. She said that she has found that a lof of the teachers choose to offer J-Term classes around subjects that they are experts in.
“That type of class is one they normally cannot spend a whole lot of of time during the year just focusing solely on, so you can tell that it is just as fun for them to teach it as it is for you to learn about it,” explained Olugbemi.
The 17-year-old has remained in the area for two J-Terms. She stayed on campus for an organic chemistry course this year and took part in an internship in the lab at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle during her first year. She also went on the Puerto Rico trip.
“I think that the whole experience of J-Term is really conducive to learning. It is a more laid-back time, because the classes are shorter and their is no homework, and I think that you find students who do step out of their comfort zone and try new things. And we all come back together when it is over and there are so many stories to tell, which starts other classmates thinking about what they might consider doing for the next year. Its great.”