My own personal “Chemistry Week”

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.

I really like my job

smiley face stickers courtesy of Flickr user South Carolinas Northern Kingdom
smiley face stickers courtesy of Flickr user "South Carolina's Northern Kingdom"

I enjoy searching for information – tracking down obscure citations and rejoicing over finding a related article in a different field.  I love a search that goes from online resources to older print materials and back again.

I was asked recently to work with a faculty member to do a literature review for a journal manuscript in science education, and I have been having a lot of fun tracking things down.

I had a starting place – a list of preliminary sources and a rough draft of the paper – to guide my work, but it took off in many directions.

So, what techniques have I pursued?

  • Starting from the preliminary bibliography, I can examine the works cited sections of those papers to find additional relevant material.
  • In addition, I can use Scopus to track citations forward in time.
  • Exploring keywords in multiple databases.  Like any search, there isn’t just one way to describe the topic we are searching.
  • Using Google and other specialized search engines to explore the web.  There is  a lot of science education material on the web that has been posted by various educators.

I was working with a topic I found interesting, in a field I am familiar with, with a faculty member who is nice to work with.  It all adds up to job satisfaction.

Information Literacy in Upper Level Undergraduate Biology

One of our library classrooms
One of our library classrooms

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be teaching information literacy sessions in three different senior-level undergraduate Biology seminar classes.  Although the topics differ, the content that I discuss is fairly similar.

Finding (and understanding) a topic

I don’t discuss this in every class, but in a class where students have (mostly) free range to select a topic, I try to give them some resources that will help them narrow the field.

I point them to relevant science news sites and blogs. is one of my favorites because it leads the students directly back to the primary literature.  I discuss the merits of browsing a journal’s table of contents, and provide them with links to appropriate journals for their field.  This is all normally done with an in class exercise that gets them to look at some of these resources.  Hopefully they may come away with a topic idea.

Do students appreciate this guidance?  I’m not sure.

Review of primary vs. review articles

Most of the faculty I speak with say that their Senior-level students already know the difference between a review article and a primary research article.  I find that some students can tell them apart, but the majority can’t identify a review article when they see it.  Some students have had information literacy sessions in sophomore and junior level classes where I discuss this in detail (throwing in science news and blogs too) but I don’t see all of our Biology majors, so it is kind of hit-or-miss.

As a result, I normally spend the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute session reviewing the difference between these article types.

I ask students to examine two different articles and for each I ask them:

  • How is the article organized?
  • Whose research and experiments are the authors writing about?  Their own? Or the research of others?

This isn’t rocket science, and at the senior level, these questions are fairly easy to answer for these students.  They just may not have been asked to look at these before.

After we identify the review and primary research articles, we talk about how each of them can be useful.

  • Can you use either for this particular assignment?
  • If you can’t use a review article for this assignment, how can it still be useful to you?

Finding appropriate articles

This section is normally the main reason why the faculty member contacted me in the first place.  I normally focus on a few basic principles:

  • Choosing an appropriate resource for the topic you are searching
  • Selecting appropriate language and terms to use for your search
  • Understanding the nature of citations and how tracking them forward or backward in time can help you find additional information.

Students sometimes have topics already chosen, sometimes they don’t.  The session will involve some hands on time searching an appropriate resource (often Scopus).

And of course, we talk about how to get their hands on the actual full text of an article.

What I don’t spend time on

It may be controversial, but I don’t spend time teaching Boolean logic, unless I have more than one session with the students (and even then I don’t call it by name).

I don’t get into specifics about citing sources unless we have more than one session, although I will recommend the use of Zotero or another citation manager.

I haven’t really talked much about open access, open science or other emerging forces in scientific communication.  I do want to find time to work open access into the conversation in the future – perhaps in the bit about how to get the full text.

Is any of this similar or different than what other librarians talk about in upper level biology classes?

Things I need to learn

Multidendritic sensory neurons from Flickr user Balapagos
Multidendritic sensory neurons illustrating Green Fluorescent Protein from Flickr user Balapagos

Sometimes I feel as though I need to know about everything.  When I teach an information literacy session, I feel ill-prepared if I don’t know about the topic of the class.  As a result, I have learned a little bit about a lot of things over the past couple of years:

  • Green fluorescent protein
  • Markovnikov reactions
  • Epigenetics
  • siRNA and miRNA
  • North American trees
  • Synoptic climatology
  • The evolution of snake fangs
  • Trematode parasites

The nature of my job requires me to learn a little bit about all of these topics so that I can help students find the relevant literature.

Unfortunately, I’m only human, and I still get lost in many things that are outside of my geology background.

Fortunately, I know enough about the literature and scholarly communication of these subjects to help students with what I need to help them with.  I can lead them into the world of scholarly communication in its various forms that they are just discovering.  At the same time their professors are leading them into the world of their disciplines.

When the partnership between faculty and librarians works well, it can be incredibly powerful.  Students can learn to explore the record of the scientific enterprise while learning enough about the discipline to understand what they find.

Helping undergraduate students understand the context of the research articles they find

Students can almost always find something about their research topic. However, they don’t always understand the nature of what they find in a couple of important ways:

  1. They may not understand the nature of the item they find – website, article, news item, review, conference proceedings, blog post etc.
  2. They aren’t yet knowledgeable enough in their field to understand the context in which a particular item stands.

I try to help students with the first item in a lot of the classes I teach.  Prior to any discussion about which databases or citation styles the students will want to use, we go back to the beginning and talk about the difference between various types of articles that they may find:

  • How to tell apart a review article and a primary research article (it isn’t hard, but many of them have never thought about the difference before)
  • What a news article looks like and how it can help lead you to peer reviewed articles
  • How to identify an article abstract when you find it through Google

But up until now, I haven’t spent a lot of time helping students figure out the context of the articles they provide.

Even upper level undergraduates are still novice scientists, and they don’t yet have a sense of what is happening in a particular field.  They aren’t yet sure which researchers are the established authorities in the field.  Students don’t quite have the background to know how a field has progressed over the last 5 or 10 years.

Helping students understand the context of their research topics is largely the job of the department faculty – teaching them the subject knowledge to understand where things fit.

However, there are tools and tips and tricks that librarians can teach these students to help them understand the context for their subject matter.

First, we can introduce them to appropriate reference materials that may provide some background.  Wikipedia isn’t a good source for their research paper, but it may help them understand terms and disciplines they aren’t yet familiar with.  Specialty encyclopedias that often get dusty on the shelves can be brought into the classroom to help students understand how their topic fits in with everything else.

Second, we can help them utilize the built in tools in many of our databases to analyze the search results they find, to see when research on their topic was being done, who was doing it, and how well individual articles were received by other scientists.  Many databases have tools that allow users to retrieve the keywords used by papers from a particular results set – what are the most common terms that arise?  Citation databases like Scopus or Web of Knowledge help students see whether later researchers found a particular paper to be useful.  Users can often examine the publication years from their results set – was this a hot topic 10 years ago?  Is it popular now?

Teaching students about these resources and advanced analysis features can help them bridge the gap from novice to expert scientist, helping them out until they have the knowledge to say “Didn’t someone publish a study contradicting this idea just a few years ago?”

Are recent developments in scholarly communication relevant to undergraduates?

Originally uploaded by

On a weekly basis, a new article or editorial comes out discussing the shifting paradigm of how scientists communicate with one another.  According to many, the journal article – the mainstay of scientific communication – is about to undergo a major metamorphosis as blogs and new journal concepts affect how science is done.  A recent report from the Science Online London 2009 conference exemplifies this.

I am very excited about these changes, and I spend some of my time checking out real-time science blogs like Useful Chemistry, participating on online science networks like Nature Network, and exploring what PLOS ONE has to offer.

But how relevant are all of these new changes to the average undergraduate?  Do they need to know about them?  If they don’t need to know now, will they in the near future?

Most of the writing assignments I’m seeing are still asking students to find traditional scholarly articles as the only sources for their papers.  Most of the faculty at my small undergraduate institution are still very traditional with regard to scholarly communication.  A (very) few faculty still have to be convinced that an online journal is acceptable, and I wrote an email a few months ago explaining that PLOS Medicine is a highly regarded journal.

Until a consensus develops around what is scholarly and what isn’t in the online world, how are undergraduate students (who still need help telling apart a review article and a piece of original research) supposed to navigate these on-going changes?

In the short term, I don’t think that undergraduates need to know a lot about these developments, beyond their own personal interest in science blogs or online science news.  For the time being, a science student can successfully navigate his or her undergraduate education without an awareness of the scientific blogosphere or the concept of open science.

As much as I would love to share my excitement of all of these fascinating changes, I don’t think students need to know about them.  At the moment, I teach students about the basic differences between review articles, primary research articles and news articles.

In the future I will probably talk about blogs and social networks and how to access primary data sets – I’m looking forward to it.

Finding Geologic Maps Online

New (or New to Me) from the USGS

Try finding a geologic map of a specific location, and you may run into some trouble.  Not because these maps don’t exist, or because they aren’t online (many of them are), they are just very tricky to find.

The recently updated Geologic Map of North America
The recently updated Geologic Map of North America (2005)

Traditionally, users needed to be able to search for a term that describes the geographical area covered.  Sometimes this is straightforward:  “New York State” or “North America”.  But sometimes it can get confusing: if you would like geologic information about Chautauqua County in New York State, would the New Your State map give you enough detail?  What about a geologic map of Western New York, or the Appalachian low-lands, or the Lake Erie Plain?  There are many, many ways to describe a geographical area in words, often making it difficult to find what you want.

The National Geologic Map Database Data Portal from the USGS attempts to take the guesswork out of this, by allowing users to use a map of the United States to identify the area they need information on, and connect them to a relevant geologic map (either online or in print).

It is still a bit quirky (it is still labeled a prototype) but it is a huge step in the right direction for ease of use.

The National Geologic Map Database Catalog can also be searched in a more traditional manner, allowing users to locate print and online maps.

Additional resources for geologic maps.

  • has a fairly good page linking to images of state geologic maps.  Some of the links don’t work anymore, but those that do images could give users a good overview of state geology.
  • Texas A&M University Library has digitized the Geologic Atlas of the United States, a series of maps and information published by the USGS between 1894 and 1945.  These maps sets offer great detail, in an easy to use online interface, although they are older.
  • The OneGeology Portal is a world-wide project hoping to provide easy online access to geologic map information from around the globe.  It is a partnership of national geologic surveys.  Additional information about the project can be found here.

Of course, all of this assumes that you are simply looking for an image of a map.  If you are looking for GIS geologic data, that is a whole different story!