Fondren Fellows Program showcases students’ research prowess

Should Fondren Library offer treadmill desks, standing desks, bike desks or some other form of furniture that offers an alternative to just sitting? How do Rice scholars approach copyright agreements that they typically sign before publishing a book or article? These were two of the research questions highlighted at an April 6 event showcasing the new Fondren Fellows Program, which engages Rice undergraduate and graduate students in working on library-focused research projects.

Christina Regelski, a graduate student in history at Rice, discussed her project, “Mapping Civil War Narratives.” Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Inspired by Rice’s Quality Enhancement Plan on inquiry-based learning, the program enrolled its first cohort in 2016. The fellows’ projects benefit the library and the scholarly community, said Lisa Spiro, executive director of digital scholarship services at Fondren. For example, projects may involve working with archival collections, developing digital projects or making recommendations for library spaces or services based on analyzing data.

The fellows receive a competitive wage, and a Fondren staff member serves as a mentor for each project. The benefits: Students create a meaningful research project in collaboration with professionals and hone research and communication skills.

“The inspiration for the Fondren Fellows Program came from the university selecting inquiry-based learning as its Quality Enhancement Plan for its re-accreditation process,” said Spiro, who welcomed the attendees to the event held in the library’s Kyle Morrow Room.

“This stimulated a conversation in the library about how we can best support inquiry-based learning,” she said. “(This means) having an open-ended research question, gathering evidence as you investigate that question, assessing the evidence, coming up with an argument or insight into that topic area and delivering some sort of final product. Of course, the library already provides a lot of support for inquiry-based learning, whether that’s through having outstanding collections or having reference librarians who are able to assist students with the research process. But it occurred to us that there’s another way that we could support inquiry-based learning, and that is by actually having students come into the library and focus on a particular library-focused problem or project that is open-ended.”

From author rights to Civil War correspondence and FitDesks

Marcel LaFlamme, a graduate student in anthropology and a member of the program’s first cohort, presented the audience with an overview of his project, “Know Your (Author) Rights,” which aimed to understand how tenure-stream faculty at Rice think about and act on their author rights in connection with their published work. LaFlamme found that while many faculty want to make their scholarly and professional output more accessible, whether by uploading it to Rice’s institutional repository or by posting it to an academic social network, faculty members may not always have a clear understanding of how and where they are permitted to share their work under the terms of the author agreements they have signed. “There’s this almost polar sensibility,” LaFlamme said. “On one hand, these agreements are powerful and we’re in the grips of them, and then, on the other hand, they’re these ephemeral things that we can ignore at our leisure.”

Rice anthropology graduate student Marcel LaFlamme gave an overview of his project, “Know Your (Author) Rights.”

The results of the project will be used to improve the resources and services that Fondren offers to faculty authors; the results also stand to fill a gap in the scholarly communication research literature, LaFlamme said.

The program allowed Christina Regelski, a graduate student in history, to explore how to map the exchanges among correspondents in a collection of over 300 Civil War letters. Working with Woodson Research Center archivists, Regelski designed her project, “Mapping Civil War Narratives,” to make the center’s rich Civil War-related collections more accessible to researchers. She used the ArcGIS mapping software to show where people wrote these documents and what locations they discussed.

This interactive “bird’s-eye view” map gives these collections a new dynamism, Regelski said. Researchers will be able to see the multiple geographies of these collections and the interactions between them. A researcher, for example, could follow the particular route of a soldier in the Army of the Potomac, trace the exchange of letters between Confederate officers and Richmond or use filters to see where men and women discussed race, politics, violence or disease.

“This opportunity to do this project with my mentors gave me a fantastic experience that I’m very appreciative of, and I’m excited to see how this project transforms and changes when my colleague (history graduate student) Edward Valentin takes over,” she said.

For a project called “FitDesks,” Neha Potlapalli reviewed alternative seating arrangements for possible student use, include bike desks, under-desk ellipticals, treadmill desks, standing desks and more. A Will Rice College sophomore majoring in sociology, Potlapalli said alternative desks can improve students’ cognitive function while studying and keep them active. With increasing research showing the dangers of extended sitting, alternative seating arrangements at Fondren can improve student health and grades, she said. Having gathered student input and surveyed the latest academic literature, she recommended the library explore a pilot program offering students standing desks and portable under-desk ellipticals. “We should begin with a pilot program in order to gather more data on these devices’ impacts on students,” said Potlapalli, who also recommended the creation of educational materials to ensure proper usage.

For more information about the Fondren Fellows Program, including past and current projects and application details, go to http://library.rice.edu/fondren-fellows.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.