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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.

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Student learning at the reference desk: bringing home notes

For as long as there have been reference desks in libraries, there has been a debate and a discussion about the nature of the reference transaction.  In some cases, the reference transaction is simply a question and answer exchange. The patron asks the question, the librarian finds the answer and passes it along:

Q: Who was the 32nd president of the united states?

A: Franklin D. Roosevelt

But in many cases, the reference transaction is about much more than simply providing answers, it’s about teaching the patron how to find the answer themselves.

Q: Who was the 32nd president of the united states?

A: Well, a quick google search leads us to the Wikipedia list of presidents.  Here it lists Franklin D. Roosevelt as the 32nd president, and provides some citations for that information.  If you are just curious, the Wikipedia list will be perfect, but if you need to cite this in a paper, you might want to refer to the White House website, which would be more authoritative and provides some good biographical information.  Do you need to find more information about Roosevelt?  if so, we may have some biographies of him in our collection….

Just like any other learning opportunity, a big part of the whole experience is retention – do the students/patrons remember what you taught them an hour from now, a week from now or a month from now.

Taking notes is a useful tool in the learning process. CC image courtesy of Flickr user geekcalendar.

With that in mind, librarians at my library will be working on some new practices for the Spring semester.  Building on the tendency of librarians to jot down search terms or possible databases while working with a patron, we will be making a more concerted effort to write down notes as we answer a question and give those notes to the student when we are done.  The idea here is that students will better be able to retain the knowledge they gained if they can refer back to the notes that were taken.

We’d like to try and capture information on this student learning, so we are going to try two things.  First, we will be using standardized carbonless duplicate note-taking forms.  This way the student gets a copy of the notes, and we can retain a copy for future study.  Second, we hope to combine this with an assessment of student learning at the reference desk (or at least an assessment of what students think they learned at the reference desk) by asking students to fill out a brief survey asking them what they learned.

Hopefully we can be more deliberate in making sure students walk away with a record of the transaction and this will increase the learning that goes on during a reference transaction.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

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.

Assessing Student Learning During Reference Transactions

Last week I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the annual conference for SUNY librarians at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City (yes, FIT is a SUNY school!).

With my exceptional colleague Kim Hoffman, we discussed a small project we did in the Fall 2011 semester to try to assess what students learned at the reference desk.

Our abstract for the presentation and our actual slides are below.  You can also view the slides on Slideshare.net to see the speakers notes.

Going Beyond Anecdotes: Assessing Student Learning During Reference Transactions

Reference services comprise one of the most important teaching opportunities within academic libraries.  While we typically assume that students learn from these interactions, we rarely have evidence to demonstrate what students actually learn.  Librarians at many institutions track the skills taught via reference statistics gathering programs, but we rarely ask students what they find most meaningful.

At SUNY Geneseo, we wanted to know what students were learning via reference transactions, beyond typical counts of reference questions or user satisfaction surveys.   These reference transactions occur in several settings, including at the reference desk, during scheduled reference consultations, and through impromptu questions at various locations.  Building on assessment techniques such as the One Minute Paper traditionally used in library instruction settings, students were given a survey after each reference transaction that simply asked “What did you learn today from your meeting with the librarian?”

In order to categorize responses, librarians developed a list of commonly taught concepts, skills, and tasks seen via reference services and library instruction.  Student responses were assigned one or more items from this list of concepts, allowing us to easily evaluate which skills were most frequently reported.

While this survey explores which concepts students report learning, it does not measure their actual mastery of the skills reported and is therefore an incomplete examination of student learning at the reference desk. Despite these limitations, this study offers a useful improvement to standard reference assessment efforts, typically based on assumptions and anecdotes.

A new venture: the Scientific American Blog Information Culture

Some readers of this blog may be interested in  a new blog I will be co-authoring on the Scientific American Blog Network called Information Culture.

I will be co-blogging with Hadas Shema, an information science PhD student who has previously blogged on some fascinating stuff on her blog, Science Blogging in Theory and in Practice.

As a result, my posting frequency here will probably drop, but hopefully won’t disappear altogether.  There are some things I want to talk about that just might not be of interest to the Scientific American crowd. But we’ll see.

We will be talking about many of the same things that I talk about here: open access, scholarly publishing, sources of frustration in finding information, etc.

Please have a look!

Take the money and run

With library funds decreasing, for-profit publishers want your science research money.

To those in the know, this isn’t big news. Publishers have been hinting about it for some time.

Keys and money

For-profit (and some non-profit) publishers want more money, while keeping their content locked down and controlled. CC image courtesy of Flickr user Images_of_Money.

But a recent analysis report (PDF) has been making the rounds of the twitter-verse today, making a few things more explicit. Reed Elsevier: Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? is an investment analysis from Claudio Aspesi and others at Bernstein Research:

Most important, at a time when budgets of academic libraries look likely to be constrained for years to come in many countries, Elsevier’s growth will increasingly depend on its ability to secure funding earmarked for general science research, instead of library funding.

This fascinating report, lays out the challenges facing Elsevier in an age of boycotts, open access, and increasing researcher awareness of the costs of scholarly publishing.

The report also focuses on Elsevier’s culture of control of their content. From limits on open access, licensing restrictions and text mining restrictions Elsevier wants to control who does what with their content. They want to take an ever increasing share of library budgets, then the research grant money, and they want to control what you do with the information you license from them. The investment analysts state:

We continue to be baffled by Elsevier’s perception that controlling everything (for example by severely restricting text- and data mining applications) is essential to protect its economics.

Recently, it seems like every year I talk to faculty in my departments and say “We have to make some tough choices due to flat budgets and increasing journal costs. What would you like to cancel?” Every time librarians do this, faculty become a bit more aware of the economics of scholarly publishing.

Elsevier isn’t the only publisher facing these challenges, and they might not even be the baddest apple in the group, but they are very big (my library pays more for their content than anyone else’s), and their actions are drawing the attention of the scholarly community.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. Stay tuned!

Publishers, Hyperbole, and the “Don’t subscribe” pricing model

Commercial publishing is no stranger to hyperbole. “Essential research for your institution.” “Best information resource available.” “Exclusive time-limited offer.”

But I recently came across an interesting case of publisher hype. Multi Science Publishing, publisher of many mid-range scientific journals, recently sent an email to an email discussion group, touting its new pricing model, “Pay only for Usage.” Their tag line is “Don’t subscribe.”

The email claimed that announcements of the new model had caused “quite a stir” and the author of the email, a W Hughs, the “director” of Multi-Science Publishing, suggested that he hadn’t seen “anything like” the scale of libraries response to the new plan.

That stuck me as quite interesting, because a search for information about this new plan yields little information about the plan.  The most prominent resources are a link to the email discussion group archives and a single blog post, both dated March 27.  I can’t seem to fins information about the package on the publishers website.  The only stir on twitter I can find are tweets from @billhughes6 directed towards libraries:

In short, I’m not convinced that this announcement has caused a stir at all.

And so you may ask, is the new model deserving of the hype?

The pricing model they’ve declared revolutionary is simple: libraries sign up for access and pay $5.00 for each article their users download. For folks in the Sciences, the $5.00 per article price point is less many publishers charge, and it’s even less than the interlibrary loan fees that libraries might have to pay.

It isn’t a bad deal. The big part seems to be the unmediated bit – users get direct access to the article, without having to request that the library buy it for them (although some new methods of making these requests have reduced the time needed to get the article to you, you still have to ask.)

So, how does this compare to other journal packages out there? That’s a difficult question to ask, because libraries don’t pay per article. In same cases, we can easily pay $1, $10 or $40 an article, depending on the journal, publisher and package.

Libraries may also be reluctant to sign up for a plan that will make it difficult for them to budget their expenses.

I like to see some experimentation in journal pricing models, because the status quo isn’t really helping anyone (except company shareholders).

I’d be less cynical about the plan if the publisher had simply promoted the plan, without informing us of how much “stir” and “excitement” it had already caused – earn the buzz for your new service, don’t just say it exists.