Dispatches from the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education

This week I am attending the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education.  it is the first chemistry conference I have ever attended, and I admit to being a little nervous as I arrived.  I felt a little like a secret agent dispatched to a foreign land.  It seemed like only a matter of time before my secret identity was discovered and they would throw me out for knowing so little about chemistry.  Perhaps I could negotiate for a bit of geology knowledge and a whole lot about open access and scholarly communication.

Biennial Conference on Chemical Education LogoSo far, I’ve either hid my real identity well or these chemists are as welcoming as everyone said.

On Sunday afternoon I was able to attend a few talks about the use of electronic lab notebooks, and a few talks about undergraduate research. Many of the faculty at my institution face challenges dealing with student research data.  With more frequent turnover than their colleagues at graduate schools, keeping track of data from so many sources can be challenging.

On Sunday night I attended the plenary talk from the president of the ACS himself, Bassam Z. Shakhashiri (see this website, too).  Apparently dubbed the “Dean of lecture demonstrations” by Encyclopedia Britannica, Shakhashiri was engaging, humorous and inspirational.

His talk was also frustrating.

At several times he talked about how the mission of the ACS was to “Advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people” and he expanding on this saying “especially in the face of denial of basic human rights especially the right to benefit from scientific and technical progress through access to the advances of science” (emphasis was his). He talked about the social contract of science, that taxpayers who pay for the research should be able to learn about the results. I agree!  But I think we disagree on how taxpayers should learn about those results.

I believe Shakhashiri was talking primarily about science education and science writing. He discussed an interesting initiative to get PhD candidates to include a chapter in their dissertation explaining their research to a lay audience.  But I couldn’t help but feel something was missing, given the ACS position on things such as access to taxpayer funded research, open access, and their incredibly aggressive institutional subscription price increases.

Towards the end of the lecture, Shakhashiri impressed everyone by a few simple chemical demonstrations.  The 1000mL graduated cylinders of purple, pink and blue liquids peaked my interest from the time I sat down, and the addition of dry ice just made things more interesting.  Importantly, he forced the audience to be explicit about our observations of his demonstration – it wasn’t just about the wow factor, but walking the audience through observations about what was happening.

So far, my sojourn into unknown territory has been highly educational.  I anticipate that the sessions of the next couple of days will help me learn a bit about chemistry education, a bit about chemists, and perhaps even a bit about chemistry.

My own personal “Chemistry Week”

Chemoluminescence
The image "Chemoluminescence" is courtesy of Flickr user "everyone's idle"
The official, American Chemical Society “Chemistry Week” was last week, October 18-24th.  Lots of exciting events took place in lots of wonderful locations.

But this week, October 26-30, is my own personal Chemistry Week.  This week, I will teach 4 two hour information literacy sessions to organic chemistry students, provide the lesson plan and all in-class content for three additional sections of organic chemistry, and teach a session on evaluating resources and expanding your literature search to senior seminar students.

I recently gave a presentation about what types of things we talk about at the various levels.  I enjoy teaching theses sessions, and I believe they are useful to the students.

This year I’m trying to focus on assessment – are the students actually learning what we want them to learn?  Do they already know it before our session?  Do they think the sessions are useful?

Each student in the organic lab is completing a brief follow up survey, so we can get a sense of how useful the session is and whether the students actually learned what we wanted to teach them.  For this follow up survey we are asking a few questions about learning outcomes, plus a couple of attitudinal questions.

In the upper level seminar, students are filling out a brief survey about their previous research experiences, to give me a sense of their comfort level with certain resources (Scopus or SciFinder) and to allow them the opportunity to ask any research questions prior to our session (I’m not anticipating that they will have many).  While students are normally not very good at assessing their own weaknesses, this will give us some information about student attitudes toward research.

I’m excited about seeing the result – hopefully they will allow the chemistry faculty and I to continue to improve the way we teach about the chemical literature and literature searching.

A day in my life as an undergraduate science librarian

I decided to follow along with a librarian blog meme, the “library day in the life“.  Since it is the summer, my day today is much different than a day during the semester.  The most notable difference is the lack of meetings.  Although the summer is a great time to make changes and get projects done, it can be very difficult to pull together all of the interested individuals.

Photo 4

7:55am – Arrive at work, Make tea.  The day can officially start.

8-8:30am – Check email, calendar.  Lots of folks are on vacation this week, which seems to account for my lack of meetings today.  Accept some future meeting invitations, decline others.  Realize that one librarian who had reference desk hours today won’t be here.  Email colleagues to see if we can split her hours.  Wishing Oracle calendar could actually interface with other things (esp. iPhone)

8:30am – Write up a blog post about our switch from SciFinder Client version to SciFinder Web.  Checking to see if appropriate URLs have been added to our proxy server so folks can get to SciFinder off campus.

8:50am – Got distracted by Explored Barnes and Noble’s new eBook reader for iPhone.  I already have the Kindle reader for iPhone, which I love.  I’d like to encourage some competition in the eBook market, though, so I think my next few purchases will be from B&N.

9:00am – First reference shift of the day, substituting for an absent colleague.   With very few students on campus, and even fewer in the library, this is very slow.  One person asked for tape, but no reference questions.

10am – Another hour of reference for absent colleague.  I will have three hours of reference today, one more than usual.

While at the reference desk this morning I manage to:

  • Catch up on a few blogs
  • Chat with our Sys admin to get some ezproxy settings changed for the switch to SciFinder web
  • Resolve a broken link in the blog post I just wrote
  • Smile and wave at a tour group as they point out the research help desk
  • Review a list of action items for a campus wide committee I’m on
  • Figure out why a link won’t work in our Resources by Subject lists
  • Explore possible ways of fixing that link, which is being problemmatic.
  • Finally fix the troublesome link
  • Smile and wave again at another tour group
  • Added google analytics to our new mobile webpages
  • Answered 1 reference question (How to find a copy of Civilization and its Discontents)

11:00am – Make tea, get a snack.

11:10am – Start cleaning desk.  Constant distractions as I stop to look up interesting things from the pieces of paper I should be throwing away or filing.  Some of the interesting things:

  • Math books from the MAA
  • IOP Librarian Forum on Facebook
  • Articles from sample copies of magazines I picked up at SLA 2009 in June
  • Finally figured out how to import our library blog to our library Facebook page. Did the same thing for my own blog on my own Facebook page. Also claimed the vanity URL for our library page.

12:15pm – Read an article about “making chat widgets work for online reference” from Online magazine (not freely available online).  Passed it along to a colleague who is on the committee working to implement web chat here.

12:30pm – Lunch.  Tried to read a Barnes and Noble eBook on my iPhone, but spent 15 minutes trying to “unlock” the book with my credit card number.  Why can’t I just log in to my B&N account?  Kindle reader wins this round.

1pm – Committee Meeting – “Creating a Collaborative Research Center”. I am on a campus committee here to look at ways to increase collaborative research (and the funding for that research).

2pm – Back on the reference desk, updating the Geology subject guideDistracted by Explored the neat search options on Mindat.org.  Finished adding some excellent resources.  Emailed faculty to inform them of the changes and to ask for additional suggestions.

3pm – Finally answered a real reference question just as my reference shift was ending.  Student was looking to see if we had any of the movies she had to watch for an assignment (most were checked out, but one was still available).

3:30pm – Head home.  I’m leaving early on Monday and Tuesday of this week to spend some time with my family.  This helps balance out all the times during the semester where I will stay late.

Why we need to ‘deselect’ items from our collections

Friedrich Konrad Beilstein, 1838-1906
Friedrich Konrad Beilstein, 1838-1906

Weeding a library collection is never a popular topic on college campuses.  Libraries are sometimes quite open about their weeding policies, and sometimes they just hope no one notices.

Faculty sometimes protest and libraries sometimes have to defend their decisions.

Just the other day, I came across a perfect example of why we need to weed our collections:  In the reference collection our library had a copy of a spiral bound users guide to Beilstein, the source of a wide variety of organic chemistry information.  From 1966.

First, the guide is to the print version of Beilstein, which doesn’t exist anymore (as far as I can tell).  Second, we don’t have access to the electronic version of Beilstein.

While this guide might be useful to historians of chemical information services one day, as an undergraduate institution with a constant need for more space in the library, we simply cannot justify hanging onto it.

Chemistry Librarians


chemistry

Originally uploaded by Brian Hathcock

Today I attended a small workshop held at the University of Toronto for chemistry librarians. It is an exciting group to be a member of (or at least a partial member, since I work with all the sciences). There were presentations from fellow librarians, a chemistry faculty member, and several vendors. It was a long day (rush hour traffic in Toronto is crazy!), but well worth it.

The vendor presentations were interesting, but reminded me that vendors really need to learn to edit their presentations. I know that your latest product is the best thing ever, but if you are allotted a half-hour time slot, please make sure that you only take a half-hour!

This was a great learning experience for me. I am not a chemist, and listening to my librarian colleagues discuss resources and the ways they assist faculty and students helps me understand how chemists work. I am slowly catching on, but I have a lot to learn.

As a relatively new librarian, it is vital for me to learn as much as I can about the literature of the disciplines I am responsible for, but it is also important to learn about the culture of those disciplines. This is something that takes time, and I am just at the beginning.

I was able to share with my colleagues some of the work we have been doing in information literacy instruction in chemistry, and get some wonderful feedback from librarians and chemistry faculty regarding the future of our program.

Searching for Spectra


Spectrum

Originally uploaded by MikeParker

A recent conversation with a chemistry faculty member has led me on a search for chemical spectra data resources.

I started with a pretty blank slate. I knew that SciFinder, from Chemical Abstracts services contained a large amount of spectra, but this faculty member was looking for more.

So where do I start? Where does anyone start a search for information? With Google, or course!

A basic search for spectral information revealed the SpecInfo for the Internet database from Wiley. This would meet the needs of my faculty member. Great! The only problem: the pricetag. As a small college, we can’t afford such a specialized database. Back to the drawing board.

Luckily for me, there are a lot of chemistry librarians at large research universities who have collected online subject guides related to spectral data. Two that I found useful are from the University of Texas and George Washington University.

These subject guides point to free resources from NIST, as well as available print resources. Hopefully this will work for the faculty member!