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Mini-term courses push students outside their comfort zone

Could teleportation become a reality? How did business shape modern America? What impact does multilingualism have on our identities?

These were just a handful of the questions explored by Duke Kunshan University students engaging in this year’s mini-term program, a series of bite-sized courses designed to push students out their comfort zones and into new realms of learning.

Launched in 2021, the program runs every March between sessions three and four of the spring semester.

About 30 faculty members offered the one-week courses this year, which are non-graded and allow students to enjoy learning without the pressure of exams.

Students visit L’Oréal for a materials science mini-term course on fragrances

Materials science major Rane Hill from the United States said the mini-term format allows students to “explore their niche interests in a low-pressure environment”.

“Instead of worrying about grades or when the next assignment is due, we can fully devote our time to investigating our favorite parts of a topic,” the Class of 2024 undergraduate said.

She took the “An Adventure with Fragrance” exploratory course run by Dr. Tan Zhang, assistant professor of materials science, in which students designed their own perfume and extracted essential oils from flowers.

“I wanted to understand more about how the intangibility of scents changes our experience with a material or a product, as well as what causes these scents in the first place,” Hill said.

“I think the mini-term did a very good job addressing the chemical reasoning behind fragrances and how we each have our own associations with certain smells.”

Rane Hill

A highlight was visiting the L’Oréal Research and Development Center in Shanghai, she said, where an expert fragrance analyst tested the students’ creations.

First-year student Wanlin Bai from China was driven to sign up for Assistant Professor in Economic and Business History Dr. Zhaojin Zeng’s course — “From JPMorgan to Tesla: How Business Made Modern America” — by her interest in both economics and history.

“This course gave me an insight into the development of business and entrepreneurship in the United States from the British colonial period to the present day, when America has become the world’s dominant economic power,” the Class of 2026 student said.

“We illustrated how the relationship between business, government and society in the United States has changed over time.

“It surprised me how American business was shaped under the mixed impact of institutional, political, environmental and cultural forces.”

Wanlin Bai

Bai, who plans to major in institutions and governance (economics track), said the mini-terms were equipping students like her with interdisciplinary knowledge and skills that would likely prove useful as they embark on various research projects.

She also pointed out that the format allowed professors to experiment with new teaching methods and strengthened the connection between classroom learning and its application to everyday life.

The Class of 2025’s Zu Gan was drawn to Dr. Kristin Hiller’s course on multilingualism and identity because of her own background as a Malaysian Chinese who speaks three languages.

“Growing up, I spoke at least three languages interchangeably — that is Malay, English and Chinese,” said Gan, who majors in global cultural studies (world history).

“Yet at the same time, my identity was closely linked to my knowledge of these languages. I wondered what the relationship was between language and identity, so this course definitely piqued my interest.”

Zu Gan

Gan said she was fascinated by the themes explored in “Multilingual Identities and the Translingual Landscape at DKU” including the “inherent power relations nested in language policies and use”.

“We also learnt about linguistic landscapes as a methodology of linguistics. I thought this super interesting as I never paid any attention to the languages used in my environment before Dr. Hiller pointed it out.”

Leo Medellín from the U.S. took the same class taught by Hiller, who is an assistant professor of English language.

As a Mexican-American he is fluent in Spanish and English and also speaks Korean and Chinese conversationally.

Leo Medellín

“I’ve always had an interest in linguistics, even before I came to DKU, and I was curious about how the different viewpoints on identity were, and maybe if this course could change the way I view my own identity,” said Medellín, from the Class of 2024.

“I learned mainly that there are many flawed ways in which we view multilingualism and being a speaker of a language, and that it’s much more encouraging to view one’s own abilities in an optimistic way.”

Medellín, who majors in molecular bioscience (biogeochemistry track), said mini-terms offered a space for students to explore topics outside their major or that could be overwhelming if requiring more commitment as part of the credit system.

“My mini-term course in particular had four students, which allowed us all to get to know each other and Dr. Hiller much better than if it was a traditional lecture-based class.”

Dr. Bill Parsons, associate dean of undergraduate curricular affairs, said mini-term courses are “in many ways microcosms of the DKU education”.

“They present DKU students with opportunities to think in new ways about important topics, giving them access to important subjects and enduring questions that might otherwise seem inapproachable.

“Our talented faculty bring these courses to life by marrying their own interests to their incredible talent as pedagogues, making this a quintessential DKU experience.”

Some of the exploratory courses that have been offered under the mini-term program:

Moral Machines: How can AI Make Moral Decisions?
Instructor: Dr. Daniel Weissglass, assistant professor of philosophy

Where You Live Matters When It Comes to Obesity
Dr. Meifang Chen, assistant professor of health policy

Epigenetics – or How a Cell Knows What to Be
Dr. Ferdinand Kappes, associate professor of biology

Presencing the Past — Reliving Memories of Kunshan through Augmented Reality
Dr. Jung Choi, assistant professor of arts history and visual studies

Robots, Spaceships, and Moral Dilemmas: Ethics and Star Trek
Dr. Joe Mazor, senior lecturer of politics, philosophy and economics

The Art of Songwriting in English and Mandarin Chinese
Dr. Andrew Field, associate professor of Chinese history

The Future of Cities
Dr. Charles Chang, assistant professor of environment

Engendering Labor: Narrating Women’s Work in the Era of Global Sweatshops
Dr. Nellie Chu, assistant professor of anthropology
Dr. Titas Chakraborty, assistant professor of history

Irrationality and What We Can Do About It
Dr. Lincoln Rathnam, assistant professor of political science

Quantum Games: Exploring the Strange Quantum Worlds Through Games
Dr. Myung-Joong Hwang, assistant professor of physics

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