Austin College students Reed Hancock and Jerry Cai could be found sitting in a second-floor classroom at the institution’s brand-new IDEA Center Monday afternoon, a full two-weeks before the spring semester begins. On the educational menu Monday was table salt, although a classroom visitor would have had trouble divining that simple subject from the numbers and formulas on the piece of college-ruled paper that rested between them.

Austin College students Reed Hancock and Jerry Cai could be found sitting in a second-floor classroom at the institution’s brand-new IDEA Center Monday afternoon, a full two-weeks before the spring semester begins. On the educational menu Monday was table salt, although a classroom visitor would have had trouble divining that simple subject from the numbers and formulas on the piece of college-ruled paper that rested between them.


"We’re trying to figure out if storing rice in salt actually prevents clumping," said Reed, a freshman from Bedford. "It’s going to, probably, otherwise why would you see it in salt shakers?"


Inquiring minds want to know.


The discussion on table salt was part of a January Term class — or "JanTerm," as it’s called by teachers and students — titled "Secrets in the Kitchen," the brainchild of Dr. John Richardson, a chemist, and Dr. Kelly Reed, a microbiologist. The class looks at cooking through the lens of science.


"He’s taught a similar one, and I kind of taught a similar one on different topics, … so we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we put them together?’" explained Reed, a 19-year veteran of the private college. "JanTerm gives us a lot more time focused on one topic."


In addition to the Bill-Nye-meets-Gordon-Ramsay class taught by Richardson and Reed, the college offers a half-dozen other options for students, including three classes taught abroad. With educational subjects that are unique in both their specificity and areas of interest, JanTerm provides students a chance to dig deeply, said Richardson.


"These (students) are giving us about six or seven hours of their time a day, whereas, in an individual semester, we get them one hour, three times a week. So we’ve got their full attention, they have our full attention, and we have time to actually undertake these longer processes.


"One of the things we just had the students do was to make cheddar cheese — well that’s a three-week process. In a typical class, there’s no way you would be able to do, every single day, some sort of a step. But in JanTerm, we have plenty of time to do it."


Cai, a junior from Guang Zhou, China, echoed his professor’s sentiments.


"It’s more practical, and you don’t have to focus on your major always," said Cai. "You can take a break and learn something interesting. … You just take it for interest, because you like it."


Fellow student Mike Sinclair also is earning JanTerm credits, but in a slightly different way. The sophomore from McKinney is one of about 100 students who will spend the month interning at North Texas businesses. For Sinclair, it’s a chance to see how the college works from the inside; he’s interning with the school’s communications department.


"The international courses, about 15 percent of the students do those," said Sinclair. "The other 85 (percent) are either doing classes like (Secrets in the Kitchen), which are interest-based, in-depth study classes, or doing what I’m doing, which is internships for course credits."


Richardson said those who spend JanTerm in the classroom often come away with real-world applications informed by academic rigor.


"It’s important because it’s experimental learning," said Richardson. "When students get their hands dirty, they tend to retain more of the knowledge we try to impart to them. The students get to actually do something as oppose to just sit and be lectured to."


Reed, his co-teacher, laughed as she complimented his summary: "We have a little more fun in JanTerm, too."