Undergraduate students lead research with FUSE grants, learn lifelong lessons

Using statistics to analyze psychological behavior during questionnaires. Learning puppetry techniques in an intensive weeklong program, then spending a semester on art installation projects. Exploring the influence of exercise during pregnancy on infant motor development.

These projects — and many more — were made possible by Western Kentucky University’s Faculty-Undergraduate Student Engagement (FUSE) grants, an internal grant program “that’s designed to provide support for undergraduate students to engage in faculty-mentored research,” said Cheryl Davis, Ph.D., interim dean, The Graduate School and associate provost for the Office of Research and Creative Activity.

The FUSE program began in 2012 and, since then, has awarded grants to students across a number of WKU departments and colleges. This academic year, Davis said, 75 students from 23 departments and 5 colleges received FUSE grants. The funding supports the research itself, as well as travel to conduct research and/or present research findings at an applicable conference. FUSE’s holistic approach to funding makes the program a significant differentiator for WKU.

“FUSE is extraordinarily unique in that it gives students funds for their project and research and also for travel, all in one place,” said Ryanne Gregory, administrative assistant, Office of Research and Creative Activity. “A lot of universities will offer travel funds separately, or for a summer research project that doesn’t include travel. FUSE packages it all together to supply the students with what they need.”

The result of the FUSE grants is some truly remarkable work that not only gives students valuable firsthand experience to prepare them for their next steps, but has also left a lasting impact on the participating professors. Here are a few of their stories.

Competitive advantage: preparing for life after undergrad study

When FUSE began, Andy Mienaltowski, Ph.D., associate professor, Psychological Sciences, encouraged students to apply. Since then, he’s had approximately seven FUSE grants awarded to students with “wide-ranging interests,” he said. “Some went on to medical school or occupational therapy graduate training programs, but the majority go on to graduate education in psychology.”

Whatever an undergraduate student decides to pursue next, the FUSE experience helps prepare them. As part of the FUSE application process, students outline their research project. And because the timeline of each FUSE grant is 18 months, the students see the full lifecycle of the project.

“They’re involved in the design, implementation, computer programming and statistics, whereas independent study students might only be involved in the lab for a semester and may not get to see the full process,” Mienaltowski said. “Sometimes students will even continue after they finish the FUSE grant because it takes time for the research to be published.”

In addition to giving students a chance to work side-by-side with faculty mentors, student-to-student collaboration can happen as a result of FUSE grants. Mienaltowski described seeing synergy in the lab between FUSE students, who lead the project, and independent study students who are interested in research experience but may not want to be responsible for the full project.

FUSE students typically receive grants in their sophomore year, giving them time to complete and present their research before the completion of their undergraduate degree. The firsthand research experience has proved to be a competitive advantage for many students, regardless of their next steps.

Mienaltowski recalled one student, Will Hornsby, who used advanced statistics to explore the mindset of people who complete a questionnaire. Through his findings, he demonstrated that people in different stages of adulthood have the same frame of mind when completing a personality inventory, which is an important part of test development within psychology.

Western Kentucky University and FUSE student, Will Hornsby, presents his research at a conference.

Hornsby took those findings to a conference in spring of 2017 and won an award. Then, as a result of advanced statistical skills he developed while working on the FUSE grant, Hornsby was accepted into the top industrial-organizational psychology doctoral program in the U.S. at Michigan State University.

“Being able to have the applied project to discuss in his personal statement and interviews was very helpful,” Mienaltowski said. “They could see how committed he was to the psychometric side of being a psychologist.”

FUSE grants are also beneficial to students who may opt to pursue post-undergraduate employment.

“FUSE students are getting data analysis and technical equipment skills that make them competitive,” Mienaltowski said. “Across the board, you can see the Office of Research is very much invested in getting students trained with the necessary technical skills to succeed in the job market.”

On Spanish opera, puppets and learning from failure

FUSE grants support a wide variety of research, including arts-focused projects. As a faculty mentor to a number of music majors specializing as voice majors, Liza Kelly, DMA, director of WKU Opera Theatre and an associate professor of music, has traveled to Ecuador, England, New York City and Scotland, among other places, to work side-by-side with her students as they immerse themselves in specific types of performances like object theater, Chinese opera and zarzuela, a Spanish opera that combines singing, spoken dialogue and dance.

Students enjoy sightseeing while completing their immersive FUSE studies in Ecuador.

“A group of students and I spent two weeks in Quito, Ecuador, and the students were integrated into the company singers of the national theatre and did a production together,” Kelly said. “We took Spanish language lessons for three hours a day in the morning, then rehearsal in the afternoon. We also learned flamenco almost every day.”

To help put those immersive teachings into further practice and showcase the benefits of the FUSE program, Kelly and her students hosted an on-campus information session to showcase zarzuela, the songs they performed and details about FUSE. Then, as part of the department’s annual opera outreach, the students and Kelly visited five schools in the Bowling Green area to showcase flamenco steps, share the history of zarzuela and invite students to participate in the performance. As a result, the cycle of learning continues, expanding individual experiences into opportunities for more people to experience topics they might not have otherwise known about.

A group of WKU students, accompanied by Liza Kelly, DMA, took flamenco classes as part of an intensive study of zarzuela in Quito, Ecuador.

“It’s important to me that FUSE students contribute to the information provided to the Bowling Green community,” Kelly said. “While some of the other projects are research- and publication-based, my stance is we’re taking what we’ve learned to the people and we’re going to teach them. That’s an important thread throughout all of the FUSE projects.”

With so many fields of study represented in the FUSE program, opportunities for collaboration abound. Kelly teamed up with Kristina Arnold, head of WKU’s Department of Art, to do a project with music and visual arts students on puppetry. They reached out to the National Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, which responded by creating an intensive, week-and-a-half program that examined puppetry techniques and different types of puppets.

“We learned about body puppets, where your body is part of the puppet, as well as simple hand puppets and Bunraku, a Japanese style of puppetry where three people articulate and move one puppet,” Kelly said. “For each of those different types of puppets, we learned how to make them, how to move them and how to work together and create a script.”

The learning didn’t stop there. The students returned to campus and spent the semester pursuing puppetry-focused art installation projects focused on a central question: how do you take materials and work and communicate with them in an installation-type situation?

For example, one class might be focused on shadow puppets, Kelly said. “You’re going to choose your topic, pick one of the songs you’re working on and create shadow puppets that will accompany the song or help tell the story of the song.”

By the end of the semester, lessons learned extended far beyond the artistry of puppetry.

“We didn’t know anything about puppetry, so we explored it together,” Kelly said. “We’re going to make mistakes and we’re going to fail, but how do you learn from that? How do you apply learning in a different discipline to your field of study? There were moments of people being frustrated during the semester, but at the end, the students agreed this was an amazing experience. They learned so much more about their art as vocalists from the experiences of working with other disciplines and pushing themselves to be innovative with things and situations that were unfamiliar.”

The exhilaration of watching students own their work

As FUSE projects unfold, they’re often learning experiences for the faculty mentors as much as the students. Rachel Tinius, Ph.D., associate professor, School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport, recounted a story of being approached by a driven student during her first semester at WKU.

“She wanted to apply for a FUSE grant and taught me how it all works,” Tinius said. “I agreed to mentor her, and in a lot of ways, she ran the show, which is what FUSE projects are supposed to be. She wrote a grant, made her budget, collected her data and made sure she met all of the requirements, including presenting. This was my first experience with FUSE, and it was an amazing one.”

The student went on to win Honors Thesis of the Year from WKU, while Tinius embraced the value of a new perspective.

“It opened my eyes to what a unique mechanism FUSE is to give a student ownership of their projects,” she said.

WKU and FUSE student Sam Tuggle pauses for a photo with his puppet as part of an intensive, collaborative study of puppetry with WKU music and visual arts students.

Since then, Tinius has averaged around one FUSE student per semester. For Tinius and her students, the process typically begins with a conversation to help guide the development of the student’s research project.

“Before they develop their own projects, I’ll bring them into the fold on what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ll sit down and find out what projects interest them, then their project develops from that conversation.”

While collecting data on exercise during pregnancy, Tinius said a student wondered if the activity influenced motor development in the baby. That query sparked a FUSE project, using the already-established cohort of research participants.

“She brought all of the moms and babies back to examine their motor development at four and 12 months,” Tinius said. “She started with my project and turned it into something that was divergent from my interests. She just presented at a national conference and people loved it; they were asking so many questions.”

Tinius also shares Mienaltowski’s perspective on the importance of students learning FUSE-enabled soft skills that prepare them for their future endeavors.

“FUSE requires students to present twice, so these are students who maybe wouldn’t have presented research otherwise,” she said. “Those skills translate into pretty much anything they want to do, and FUSE looks great on a resume, too, to have obtained your own funding.”

FUSE students Allison Rinne (left) and Shelby King present their research, “Age Differences in Peripheral Emotion Detection: Converging Psychophysical and Electrophysiological Evidence.”

For most FUSE students, the program also shows them how strong — and resilient — they are.

“You can see how students respond to adversity because research never goes as planned,” Tinius said.

And when students achieve the culmination of their FUSE work, the results are as gratifying for their faculty members as the students themselves.

“I’ve had three FUSE students publish as first author manuscripts in peer review journals,” Tinius said. “FUSE offers a tangible opportunity for mentoring while giving students a project they can go on to present and publish. I can’t say enough good things about the program.”

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