Explaining science using simple words: Up Goer Five

While thoroughly enjoying the recent #overlyhonestmethods meme on twitter I came across the #upgoerfive meme.

This latest meme was inspired by an xkcd comic that attempted to explain the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most common English words.  Saturn V becomes Up Goer Five.

So Theo Sanderson created a text editor that only allows you to use the 100 most common English words and challenged scientists to explain what they do using simple language. It isn’t easy.  Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan (of the excellent blog Highly Allochthonous) then created a tumblr blog collecting examples, like this description from volcanologist Lockwood Dewitt:

I like rocks. Also high places that sometimes act like they’re on fire. But what I really like is sharing what I know about rocks and high places, and how those things came to be. What made them? What moved them? Why are they the way they are? I think the answers to these questions are important, and I think people should know more about them. So I use words and pictures to show everyone how beautiful and amazing rocks and high places are, why they’re important to us, and why it’s important to know about them. Sometimes I even get to take people to see rocks in real life, which is the best part of what I do.

I tried my hand at explaining my job in simple language:

I help people learn about the different types of stuff they can find on the computer. I help them find books and computer stuff they need to learn about the world around them.  And I help them learn about how people tell other people about what they learned.

One of the first things I thought of was how this forces you to really think about the topic you are writing about, because you can’t rely on the jargon you normally use.

My next thought was that this could be a useful exercise for students, and could help them understand the concept of “putting something into their own words,” a concept that I talk about often in plagiarism workshops.

The first part of putting something into your own words is to really understand what you are trying to say, a step that students sometimes skip when putting together their term paper at 1am the morning before it is due.

So this might be an interesting challenge for students: ask them to use the Up Goer Five text editor to explain their research or term paper topic.



Why I’m lukewarm about Google+

It has nothing to do with features, appearance or privacy.  And I’m certainly not opposed to the type of social networking it entails.  Rather, it’s all about laziness.

@marknca put it quite succinctly on twitter:

while g+ has very compelling features, it's also highlighting the effort required to recreate your social graph on a new service #sm


I don’t really want my social networking to feel like effort, and that’s what’s happening right now.  It’s taking time to map twitter handles to real names, and to figure out if I want to share baby pictures of my kids with this person I met at a conference but not this other person.  And as usual, I’m probably over-thinking it.

I’m normally a reasonably early adopter of digital tools, but I’m dragging my feet on this one.  I was happy using Twitter for primarily professional purposes and Facebook for primarily personal uses.  Assuming Google+ doesn’t fizzle like Wave or Buzz I’m sure I’ll get there in the end, but this one make take me a while.

Teaching with Twitter

Twitter posts seem to be everywhere these days, from politicians and government offices to celebrities and entertainment news.  I have been using Twitter for some time now as a regular part of my networking and professional development, and today I even sampled some of the tweets from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Royal Tour of Canada. (Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north!)

Many folks are trying to figure out how this incredibly powerful tool can be effectively incorporated into teaching and learning.  There are two broad categories here: 1) passive techniques that use twitter as a one-way source of information, and 2) more active techniques that require your students to sign up for an account and tweet.

The former category is much easier to integrate into your teaching, but perhaps not as high-impact as the latter.

One-way source of information

Instructors and others can write tweets that can be incorporated via a twitter widget into websites and LMS.  From simple reminders about homework assignments or timely pointers to news and information resources, students simply need to use tools they are already using to read the messages.

Along a similar line, a feed can be created from a twitter search (including hashtags) or a twitter list and incorporated into a page students regularly view.  Many professional organizations tweet (like the Mathematical Association of America or the Ecology Society of America) and can expose students to the world of professional scholarship.  I have incorporated these twitter feeds into Subject Guides I create for disciplines and classes.

Student Participation

A much richer way of incorporating twitter in your teaching requires students to sign up for and use a twitter account.  Several articles and blog posts have discussed various strategies.  The twitter stream can be used as an in-class back channel (much like it is at conferences) or outside of class to keep students engaged.  A 2010 study in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning showed that the use of twitter (both in class and out of class) resulted in an increase in both student engagement and final grades.  Students can use twitter to continue an in-class discussion beyond class time, ask questions during class (especially helpful for the more introverted students), and connect with classmates.

Despite the positive results of this study and many instructors’ enthusiastic adoption of twitter, there are pitfalls.  A recent article in The Chronicle discussed an attempt at cheating-by-twitter, and the hazards of the in-class back channel getting out of hand.  Other blog posts have described a student backlash against using the tool.

As a librarian, the most interesting report of using twitter involved a librarian who was embedded in the class via twitter.  The librarian (from her office) paid attention to the in-class back channel (and the after class tweets) and was able to provide commentary and point to relevant resources.

Like all technology tools, the decision to use twitter must depend on your educational goals: What do you hope to achieve?  And is twitter the right tool to do this?  Will your students find the use of twitter to help or hurt their educational experience?  Jumping in with both feet without a plan for using twitter probably won’t work for students or instructors.

Libraries and mobile devices

Our new mobile web page
Our new mobile web page

Today is the Handheld Librarian conference. You can follow the tweets from the conference.  Around 11am I wish I had registered for it. Looking at all of the tweets about the technical problems, I’m not so disappointed. I am hoping that some of the information will be made available later on, because this is a subject I have been thinking about a lot for my library.

Recently, I created a very basic mobile webpage for our library.  At the moment, it contains three main pieces of information:  library hours, contact information, and links to a (very) few databases with mobile interfaces.

In my search for databases to include on this list, I was surprised by the low number of vendors with such interfaces.  I also wondered exactly how users would use these mobile resources.

In addition, we have been paying attention to what is happening with Kindle eBook readers.  There seems to be a lot of debate about how/if libraries can lend these out or take advantage of the eBook market in anyway.

I am an avid reader of eBooks on my iPhone, through the Kindle reader for iPhone and now the new Barnes and Noble eBook reader.  So far, the Kindle reader is easier to use.

I’m looking forward to seeing what other libraries are doing with mobile devices to provide content and services.

Why do I Twitter?

Everyone is talking about Twitter right now.  I thought I would talk about why I think using Twitter is useful to me as an undergraduate science librarian.

First, I can connect with colleagues.  While I have some amazing colleagues at my library, there are no other science librarians.  Using twitter I can engage in conversation with science librarians at far flung institutions to give and receive advice, assistance and support.

Second, it’s a great way to keep up with practicing scientists.  Even if the faculty I work with aren’t on twitter, I can get a good sense of what professors and researchers are doing.

Third, it is great way to find out about recent news from folks who are much more connected than I am.  I get pointed to great links and hear assessments of recent developments in the information world by people smarter than I am.  Folks provide commentary on the Google Book settlement, or about the now-defunct changes to OCLC policies.

And of course, it’s fun!  Sometimes you just want to tell the world what you had for breakfast.

Annual Reporting and the Importance of Librarian as Communicator

It’s annual report season at my institution, which forces me to think about what I’ve actually accomplished this year. It provides a great opportunity for me to re-examine the wonderful things that I’ve learned at the various conferences and workshops I have attended this year.

One of the most common themes I’ve encountered this year is the idea of the importance of the librarian as communicator:

  • Communicating with students about appropriate resources
  • Communicating with faculty about changing library policies and new resources
  • Communicating with administrations and governments about the role of the library at your institution
  • Facilitating communication with the public about science and scholarship

What strategies do we employ (or should we employ) to help us meet our various communication needs?

Traditional tools such as newsletters and posters aren’t as sexy as web 2.0 applications, but they remove the barrier to entry and reach a population that isn’t always wired.

Social media can help connect libraries to their users, but time and effort must be expended to reach the audience you are seeking. Social media can also become insular: librarians following other librarians on twitter, Facebook pages for a library whose only “friends” are other librarians. My library has a Flickr account and a Facebook page, but both are badly in need of updates. Do we jump in on twitter, too?  With a limited staff can we replicate the success of a colleague using twitter at a larger university?

Those tools can help you connect to and interact with users in a way that is impossible with the mass-mailed newsletter, but only when used appropriately.  This is something I am constantly working on.

Back to work

I have been on maternity leave for the past 2 1/2 months, and I am starting to get back into the swing of things.

Some of the projects currently on my list:

  • Revise our science and mathematics subject guides. They were neglected before I came on board as science librarian and are in need of a big overhaul
  • Weed the science reference collection (with my reference librarian colleagues)
  • Put together a presentation about information literacy in Chemistry for a small workshop
  • Analyze our print collection in the sciences, in case we have any money to buy more books next year
  • Working with biology faculty to develop some information literacy strategies for the first year biology lab
  • Miscellaneous web design projects, including a possible transfer of the library website to the Drupal CMS
  • Ongoing assessment of our information literacy program

So, what do I tackle first upon my return? The easy things: possible style sheet changes for our website to change the look of our links. Sometimes the best way to get started again is to do a few easy things before hitting the larger projects.

Oh, and I spent some time finding more science librarians to follow on Twitter, and editing my LinkedIn profile. That counts as work, right?