Doctoral Student Wins International Research Title with Language App

woman with blonde hair standing next to her poster presentation
Laura Gonzales presenting PromptMe at the SIGDOC conference in Ireland.

A team of three graduate students in the Rhetoric and Writing program at Michigan State are changing the way language is used in the classroom. Spokesperson for the team, Laura Gonzales, won first place at the annual SIGDOC conference for their application idea, PromptMe, and is now in the running for a national title in Microsoft’s Student Research Competition.

The Big Idea

Third year PhD student in the Rhetoric and Writing program, Laura Gonzales, and graduate students Rebecca Zantjer and Howard Fooksman, came up with the idea for PromptMe in an Information and Interaction Design course, taught by Bill Hart-Davidson, associate dean of graduate studies at the College of Arts & Letters. The class is centered around projects that integrate information, interfaces, and areas students are passionate about. “He challenged us to take an activity we knew well and create something that would make the world a little bit better,” says Gonzales.

We want students to understand that their interpretations aren’t necessarily wrong — they’re just different than their instructors.

The team’s focus was on the different languages seen within classrooms, and understanding the varying interpretations between students and instructors. Using their knowledge of language in academics, the group brainstormed an application that would allow teachers to upload assignments and get immediate feedback from students. Students would indicate which particular words on the assignment were confusing or could be misinterpreted. The goal of the app is for classes to then discuss the meaning of the words and the assignment as a whole, and build a better understanding between teachers and students. “We want students to understand that their interpretations aren’t necessarily wrong — they’re just different than their instructors.”

The Collaboration and Support

PromptMe was supported by the College of Arts & Letters Creativity Exploratory’s (CE) Pathways to Entrepreneurship Program. “This started as a class project, but it was winning the Pathways to Entrepreneurship grant that enabled us to take it out of the classroom,” says Howard Fooksman, PromptMe team member and graduate student. The team applied for a Pathways grant to be able to continue to develop PromptMe, and to get Gonzales to Limerick, Ireland for the SIGDOC conference. SIGDOC is a national organization and annual event focused on promoting the professional development of communication strategists, architects, planners, and designers. Along with the funding from the CE, designer Nicole Geller helped in creating PromptMe’s logo, and fellow doctoral student Heater Turner assisted Gonzales in the poster design. Mentor to the group and Director of Writing, Information, and Digital Experience (WIDE) at MSU, Liza Potts, also helped the team get to SIGDOC. 

three people taking a photo together, two women and a man
PromptMe creators Laura Gonzales, Rebecca Zantjer, and Howard Fooksman.

At SIGDOC the PromptMe group advanced through the poster phase of Microsoft’s Student Research Competition, and Gonzales was one of five students to give a ten-minute oral presentation. Again, support and collaboration pushed Gonzales and her ideas to the top. “Even though I was the one chosen to do the talking for my group, I knew that all these people at the conference and at home had my back. My mentors told me to stand up for my project and their support allowed me to feel confident in my ideas and research.”

PromptMe was awarded first place at the conference, and will advance to the SRC Grand Finals of the competition. Rebecca Zantjer, the third member of the PromptMe team comments, “The help we received is reflective of MSU’s broader commitment to entrepreneurship and the spirit of innovation that distinguishes this institution and its people.”