Dr. Jan Pearce: Living Liberal Arts
by W.C. Kilby, ’14
Jan Pearce, Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, is a woman of many talents and passions. When asked about her interests, she responds with a deluge of answers that sound more like driving directions explaining her present position by telling where she has been.
One of Pearce’s greatest passions is for the Liberal Arts. It grew during her undergraduate years at Augustana College in Illinois and followed her all the way to the University of Rochester, where Pearce received her Ph. D. in Mathematics. She smiles when she remembers the final days of her doctoral studies, when she announced her career plans to her dissertation advisor. “I told him that what I really wanted was to teach at a small Liberal Arts school like the one I went to, and his eyes just went wide,” she says. Teaching at a school like Berea wasn’t part of the usual plan, but it was what Pearce wanted. In 1992 she fulfilled that goal by joining the Berea College Faculty.
Since her arrival Pearce has spent much of her time pursuing her ever-changing professional passions, which have included Mathematics, Computer Sciences, Robotics, and Educational research. “They’re always shifting,” she says, “but it’s that intellectual curiosity that keeps us young.”
An outsider might argue that Jan Pearce’s intellectual curiosity has not only kept her young, but also made her an invaluable problem solver for Berea College. When she first arrived, Pearce was greeted with a Computer Science curriculum in need of some work. It was a linear program, and the only available introductory course had recently been cancelled. “The only students who could actually take computer science had to have had some in high school,” she says. Since then Pearce has crafted a new minor and major curriculum with three different exploratory courses and a fourth on the way. She has also authored literature so that other institutions may follow her example.
Most recently Pearce applied her mathematical skill and creative ingenuity to Berea’s Academic restructuring. When others saw an arduous challenge in trying to rework the school’s departmental model, Pearce saw an opportunity. In a series of two campus wide surveys, she gathered data from faculty members regarding which departments they were most likely to work with. With that data, she constructed a ground breaking mathematical model called a cluster analysis based upon a pseudo-metric to predict the most beneficial arrangements. The structure her research generated is the very framework for the College’s current six-division model.
These achievements have certainly not gone unnoticed. Following the restructuring, Pearce assumed the chair of Academic Division II: Resources, Technology, and Commerce. She is also currently the sole Faculty Representative to Berea’s Board of Trustees, and has received numerous awards during her tenure. Among them, she is most proud of her recent Brushy Fork Bob Menefee Service Award. She received the award for her work with a digital storytelling class. “Brushy Fork had identified community leaders in Appalachia, people who have really made a difference, and asked them to tell their stories,” she says. The students worked with those recorded interviews, edited them into videos, and constructed an interactive website to show them off. “I’m really proud of it,” Pearce says. “Now those stories are accessible to anyone in Appalachia. Before, you couldn’t access those stories unless you knew those people. “
As if Jan Pearce’s passions for science and education were not enough, she is also an accomplished dancer. She regularly performs with the Lexington Vintage Dancers and has performed several times with the Kentucky Ballet Theater. She even hosts a monthly dance in Lexington called “Mostly Waltz”. Her favorite, however, is the Argentine Tango. It is a passion that has led Pearce all the way to Argentina with Berea College students to study with the masters of the Tango.
With so many diverse passions and accomplishments already acquired, Jan Pearce is hesitant to predict her future. “I have no idea what’s going to come next,” she says, “but I’m sure it will be fun.”