The challenge: How to provide real-world experiences and inquiry during a pandemic. The solution: A winter course stuffed with activities and interaction.
A redesigned signature Elon College Fellows course this winter became a proving ground for liberal arts research and a valuable opportunity for first-year students to build community.
Over six days, the 53 first-year students in ECF 111: Pathways of Inquiry attended a series of lectures by faculty and guest researchers, informational sessions by junior and senior Fellows, and teambuilding activities. Incorporating each of the three branches of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences — the arts and humanities; math, computational and natural sciences; and the social and behavioral sciences — the interdisciplinary sessions prompted the first-year Fellows to develop research questions across a range of topics.
Danny Nickel ’24 said the events showed how inextricably linked the branches are, and how they strengthen each other.
“A huge part of the College Fellows program is learning to span the breadth of the arts and sciences,” Nickel said. “Just by being able to do these different activities in the different branches gives us the opportunity to find ways to interwork the disciplines. Even though I’m focused on the social sciences, I found ways to involve the different areas of the arts and sciences into my questions.”
The Elon College Fellows program celebrates the breadth, depth and connections within the arts and sciences. Fellows receive annual scholarships, a travel grant to study abroad, and research funding while enmeshed in a community of friends and learners. The Fellows experience culminates with two years of closely mentored research in a topic related to a students’ major, presented in the spring of their senior year.
The jointly taught Winter Term course is the only time an entire Fellows cohort takes a class together. In pre-pandemic years, ECF 111 students traveled to Washington, D.C., for five days to meet with experts and researchers there while formulating nascent research proposals. With the inability to travel, faculty this fall called on colleagues and current and former Fellows to outline the research process and model methods scholars use in data collection and analysis. The result was the Pandemic Development Activities program — PANDAs for short.
“Nearly everything” about the course changed this winter, said Professor of Biology Dave Gammon. He co-teaches ECF 111 with Professor of Psychology Alexa Darby, Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Sean Giovanello and Assistant Professor of English Heather Lindenman.
“In normal years, our week-long trip to Washington, D.C., does an amazing job at helping the Fellows build community among the cohort,” Gammon said. “We knew we would need to add in activities that help students to connect with each other.”
Topics ranged from global public health, species conservation, socio-political movements and policymaking, to writing literature and nonfiction. In addition to presentations by Elon faculty, small group sessions included guest lectures from researchers with the Smithsonian Institution, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Safe Kids Worldwide, and the Cook Political Report. Documentary and film screenings led to group discussions around politics, science and how the arts and humanities are used to elevate or examine those issues. Teambuilding activities included hikes, a day trip to the N.C. Zoo, and participation on Elon’s low ropes course. In all, eight Elon faculty and staff, seven outside guests and three older Elon students met with the cohort.
“In this class, we’ve had so many discussions and done so many different activities that it’s been easier to bond with people and discuss our commonalities.” Kaitlin Cirillo ’24 said.
Prior to PANDAs, students created research questions within each of the three branches and finalists presented “elevator pitches” to the class outlining their proposals and fielding questions about methodology. Nickel said that exercise allowed students to share observations and inquiry across multiple fields and broadened class discussions.
Sessions with alumni and upper-class undergraduates proved especially valuable, students said. Sophie David ’24 felt more confident in her path towards a major and career in STEM after hearing from alumni how their Elon experiences led to fruitful postgraduate study and occupations.
“We’re all here because we have big plans for the future,” David said of the Fellows program. “It was good to hear from people who’ve been through this class and learned to think in different ways about research. They all took such different paths, but they’re all so happy with what they’ve done.”