Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 2000

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

Building Websites for Science Literacy

Victoria Welborn
Science Librarian
Science Library
University of California, Santa Cruz

Bryn Kanar
Reference Specialist
Science Library
University of California, Santa Cruz


Building a webliography on a scientific topic can be a daunting task. This paper seeks to simplify the process by suggesting straightforward guidelines for evaluating and organizing websites. The guidelines are developed from definitions of science literacy and science information literacy and illustrated by a sample webliography and a sample search strategy on the topic of acoustical oceanography.


Definitions of science literacy have proliferated in recent years. This paper surveys some of these, focusing on the aid they can offer librarians in evaluating websites and building science webliographies.

Two definitions are relied on most strongly, that of "civic scientific literacy" (Miller 1998), and that of "science information literacy" (adapted from Shapiro and Hughes 1996). From these, we develop criteria for evaluating and organizing websites. Several acoustical oceanography sites are used to illustrate the process.

Definitions of Science Literacy

What is science literacy? Do we have it or lack it? How is it measured? How is it taught? Reading recent discussions of the topic, one comes away with almost as many answers as there are articles.

There seems to be broad agreement that science literacy is desirable and important. And, with few exceptions (Gould 1997), most also agree that non-scientists generally lack it (Ehlers 1998, Maienschein 1999). One of the best discussions is that of Jon Miller (1998) who concludes that, at least for regions for which sufficient data exist, "there can be little doubt that the current levels of civic scientific literacy are too low." Some point out that scientists themselves often fail to understand basic scientific principles outside their areas of specialization (Pool 1991). When we get past the hand wringing, however, and come to definitions and solutions, the agreement ends.

Many who have tried to define science literacy suggest lists of "basic facts" that the scientifically literate should know (Raymo 1998, Trefil 1996). Paul DeHart Hurd (1998) presents one of the farthest ranging discussions of "the cultural roots of scientific literacy," at the end of which he also suggests a list, but not of facts. Instead, Hurd presents a list of "behaviors that serve as guidelines for interpreting the functions of science/technology." Others focus on "successful information seeking behavior" (Sapp 1992), "scientific awareness" (Devlin 1998), or "scientific ways of knowing" (Maienschein 1999).

The Women's Studies Program and the Center for Science Education at Portland State University have tried to craft a definition by looking at what others have proposed and seeing which elements they agree with. A fascinating "Working Paper" discussing their process is available on the web at {http://www.horizons.pdx.edu/~fem-sci-lit/}. Another website that has tackled the topic of science literacy is the Project 2061 site from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.project2061.org/). This site appears less concerned with precise definitions and more concerned with providing resources for educators wishing to promote science literacy.

Jon Miller (1998) takes yet a different approach. Drawing on the work of Shen (1975) and on his own previous work (Miller 1983), he proposes a tripartite definition that emphasizes the need for an understanding of the vocabulary, concepts, and processes of science.

Another study that divides its topic into component parts as an aid to definition is that of Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes (1996). Not an inquiry into science literacy but into information literacy as it is broadly defined, their work explores seven aspects of the topic, ranging from tool literacy to critical literacy.

It is not the point of this paper to attempt any kind of synthesis of these disparate approaches. What we are concerned with is the help these discussions can offer in the sometimes daunting task of evaluating websites and organizing links. For this purpose, we found the last two articles mentioned above (Miller 1998; Shapiro and Hughes 1996) to be the most valuable. We'll take a closer look at them before turning to the subject of website evaluation.

Civic Scientific Literacy

Benjamin Shen (1975) divides science literacy into three categories: cultural scientific literacy, civic scientific literacy, and practical scientific literacy. In his 1998 article, Jon Miller focuses on Shen's civic scientific literacy, defining it as "a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to...understand the essence of competing arguments on a given dispute or controversy." This ability to make judgements is an important aspect of civic scientific literacy, Miller argues, because "[i]t is primarily at the point of controversy that the public becomes involved in the resolution of scientific and technological disputes."

But what exactly does this literacy consist of? According to Miller, civic scientific literacy requires "(1) a vocabulary of basic scientific constructs...(2) an understanding of the process or nature of scientific inquiry, and (3) some level of understanding of the impact of science and technology on individuals and on society." By measuring these three elements it is possible to estimate the level of civic scientific literacy in a given group.

As it turns out, these same three elements also prove to be useful tools in analyzing and categorizing science websites.

Science Information Literacy

As with science literacy, information literacy is defined in many ways. In this paper we will use the definition of Shapiro and Hughes (1996), adapting it to our own needs. Those authors contend that in today's information society, information literacy should include the ability to "access information" as well as the ability to engage in "critical reflection on the nature of information itself, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact."

This is too broad for the purposes of this paper. We would like to propose a definition of science information literacy based on the above definition, but emphasizing the ability to access information of a scientific nature and to analyze it critically.

Shapiro and Hughes go on to define seven dimensions of information literacy (tool literacy, resource literacy, social-structural literacy, research literacy, publishing literacy, emerging technology literacy, and critical literacy). We follow their model but narrow it to include only information pertinent to the sciences. Furthermore, of their seven dimensions, we will concern ourselves with only the first three. These are:

  1. Tool Literacy -- The ability to use and understand information tools including computers, printers, and network applications.

  2. Resource Literacy -- The ability to "understand the form, format, location and access methods of information resources." In the sciences this would include knowledge of specific indexes and abstracting services, and specific types of scientific publication formats, such as research articles, review articles, conference proceedings, technical reports, etc.

  3. Social-structural literacy -- An understanding of "how information is socially situated and produced [and how it] fits into the life of groups...such as universities, libraries, research communities." For scientific information this would cover an understanding of informal and formal peer review and how it relates to journal articles and conference proceedings; how the structure of the journal article relates to the scientific process; the methods for scientific data, information, and knowledge; the differences between scholarly and popular publications.

As you may have guessed, these three dimensions of science information literacy will become three more tools in our website-evaluation toolbox. We now have sufficient resources to look at some actual websites.

Evaluating Science Websites

Let's say you've undertaken the task of building a webliography on the topic of acoustical oceanography. There are a lot of sites on the subject and it's difficult to know which to include and which to leave out. Once that determination has been made, the further complication arises of how the links should be organized to best aid the users in finding the kinds of information they're looking for.

One approach to the problem is to begin with the six tools developed in the previous section. For the purpose of website evaluation, they can be reformulated into six questions: (1) does the site help build vocabulary on the topic? (2) does the site help build an understanding of the scientific processes involved in the topic? (3) does the site help build an understanding of the impact the topic may have on society? (4) does the site discuss the tools (either hardware or software) that are used in researching the topic? (5) does the site help build an understanding of how the resources relevant to the topic are organized and accessed? (6) does the site help build an understanding of the social context in which the scientific work is done? Each of these questions may be given more weight or less weight depending on the webliography's intended audience.

We can now turn to a sample webliography and a sample search strategy that are informed by this kind of evaluation.

Science Friday Kids Connection

Every Friday, National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" focuses on science. To supplement this show, NPR has created a web site called Science Friday Kids Connection ({http://www.kidsnet.org/sfkc/}. Let's look at one of the archived pages on this site and see how well it supports our six areas of science literacy ({http://web.archive.org/web/20110214162335/http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/1998/Jun/hour2_062698.html}). If you follow this link, please scroll down to hour two of the two-hour program.

Websites designed for children can be excellent places to begin learning about a subject. They tend to emphasize basic concepts and to explain those concepts with a refreshing freedom from jargon. The Science Friday page that discusses acoustical oceanography has these advantages. It is also strong in two of our six areas of inquiry: by suggesting experiments that can be done easily and without equipment it helps build an understanding of basic scientific processes. And, in the audio file of the radio program, it gives listeners an understanding of the social context of the work being done in acoustical oceanography.

Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate

The {Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate} (ATOC) project is a feasibility study coordinated by the University of California and funded by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. The project focuses on two main areas of research: global climate as reflected in ocean temperature, and the effects of man-made sounds on marine mammals.

Since the project is directly involved in research, it's not surprising that their website is especially strong in our second area of concern, building an understanding of the scientific processes behind the topic. One example of this is in the section on climate where the research is explained in non-technical terms. "The basic idea of ATOC is simple" the site explains. "Sound travels faster in warm water than in cold water. The travel time of a sound signal from a source near California to a receiver near Alaska...will decrease if the intervening ocean warms up, and will increase if the ocean cools down."

The site is also valuable in building an understanding of how relevant resources are organized and accessed. From the main page, the site offers links to "ATOC Publication Lists." On the pages, publications are broken down into publication types such as 'conference proceedings', 'research articles', 'unpublished reports', etc. This gives users an idea of the different formats in which research is presented in the area of acoustical oceanography.

Acoustical Society of America

Finally, we'll look at the homepage for the Acoustical Society of America (http://asa.aip.org/). The main strength of this site is the access it provides to online resources such as journal articles (Journal of the Acoustical Society of America), books, videos, CDs, and conference proceedings. Many of these deal directly with acoustical oceanography, others help place acoustical oceanography in the broader context of acoustical science.

Taking a closer look, we find this site is especially useful in addressing three of our six areas of concern: it helps build an understanding of scientific processes, an understanding of the impact of acoustical oceanography on society, and an understanding of the social context in which the research takes place.

To give an example of just one of these (the impact of the topic on society), we can look at the online version of a paper presented at a recent society meeting ({http://www.acoustics.org/137th/sagen.html}}. The paper begins, "Climate changes in the coming decades...pose serious economic constraints for further economic development in both industrial and developing countries....The overall objective of AMOC [Acoustic Monitoring of the Ocean Climate] is to...study long-term climate variability, and thus detect global warming."


All three of these sites are good at presenting the science involved in acoustical oceanography, two of them show strength in discussing the social context of the science, one provides information on the impact of the science on society, and one shows how acoustical oceanography resources are organized. The sites are not as strong in developing vocabulary or discussing research tools in their topic.

If a comprehensive webliography is desired, more sites could be researched until all six areas were satisfied by several sites. For our purposes we only need enough examples to demonstrate the evaluation process. We can now turn to a sample webliography and a sample search strategy that are informed by this of evaluation.

Building Webliographies and Search Strategies

With the evaluative work complete the webliography becomes relatively easy to put together. Categories can be created, either using the terminology we have laid out or other headings that describe the same concepts. The example presented below is limited to websites, but a more extensive list of resources could be compiled including other kinds of material under the same categories. All websites in the example have undergone the same evaluation process as those sites discussed in detail earlier.

In addition to aiding the creation of webliographies, this process can also be of value to the librarian wishing to add supporting material to a search strategy. The search strategy is a widely-used tool that, in many cases, can benefit from the inclusion of links leading students to appropriate websites.

The sample search strategy below consists of four parts: (1) choosing a topic in the area of acoustical oceanography, (2) finding background information on the topic, (3) finding books on the topic, and (4) finding journal articles on the topic. Each of these parts can be supported by websites with certain strengths. Of the six categories we discussed earlier, part one can be supported by sites strong in areas 1,2,4, and 5; part two can be supported by sites strong in areas 2,3, and 6; and parts three and four can be supported by sites strong in areas 4 and 5. The sample illustrates one way this could work.

Sample Webliography on Acoustical Oceanography

Acoustical Oceanography is a complex and varied field. It refers both to studying acoustics in the ocean and to using acoustics to study the ocean. The following websites can help you gain an understanding of this important field. Each site may appear under more than one category.

  1. Websites that Discuss the Science Behind Acoustical Oceanography
    • Science Friday Kids Connection
      ({http://web.archive.org/web/20110214162335/http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/1998/Jun/hour2_062698.html}) -- This is a good site for beginning to learn about acoustical oceanography. It deals with some of the scientific concepts of the subject, but only in a basic way.

    • The Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate Project
      ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/}) -- This site offers good descriptions of current research in the areas of ocean climate ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/Climate_page.html}) and Marine Mammals ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/MMRP_page.html}).

    • The Acoustical Society of America
      (http://asa.aip.org/) -- This site offers access to publications and other resources that discuss current research being done in acoustical oceanography.

    • Scripps Institute of Oceanography
      (http://www.sio.ucsd.edu/) -- A broad site that contains useful information related to acoustics on several of its pages. A good example would be the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics page, which can be arrived at from the Research Groups and Institutes page ({http://sio.ucsd.edu/research/alpha_res.html}).

    • The Acoustical Oceanography Research Group of the University of Victoria, British Columbia
      ({http://pulson.seos.uvic.ca/}) -- This site contains descriptions of recent research at {http://pulson.seos.uvic.ca/}.

  2. Websites that Discuss the Impact of Acoustical Oceanography on Society
    • The Acoustical Society of America
      (http://asa.aip.org/) -- This site provides access to resources on the impact of acoustical oceanography on society. Several of its pages also do this, for example their "News and Notes" page ({http://acoustics.whoi.edu/ao/}).

  3. Websites that Discuss how Acoustical Oceanography Resources are Organized
    • Scripps Institute of Oceanography
      (http://www.sio.ucsd.edu/) -- In its presentation of an experiment performed in the Strait of Gibraltar and of the publication of data derived the from the experiment, this site gives a good idea of how resources are created and organized in the field of Acoustic Oceanography ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/gibraltar/}).

    • The Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate Project
      ({http://atoc.ucsd.edu/}) -- This site is especially good at showing how different kinds of information is distributed into different kinds of publications. See Acoustic Thermometry Publications (http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/atpubspg.html) and Marine Mammal Publications ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/mmpubspg.html}).

  4. Websites that Discuss the People and Groups Behind Acoustical Oceanography

Sample Search Strategy for Acoustical Oceanography

Acoustical Oceanography is a complex field. The following suggestions can help you choose and research a topic in this area. Remember, the websites mentioned should be consulted in addition to, not as a substitute for, traditional library research.

  1. Choosing a Topic in Acoustical Oceanography

    Choosing a topic is often the most difficult part of writing a paper. First you must have a general idea of the broad subject from which you will choose your more narrow topic. To get an idea of the field of acoustics, visit the homepage of the Acoustical Society of America (http://asa.aip.org/). This page also has information specifically on acoustic oceanography ({http://asa.aip.org/tech_com/ao.html}). There are also two pages at the Science Friday Kids Connection site that have basic information on this topic ({http://web.archive.org/web/20110807070043/http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/1995/Oct/hour2_102095.html} and {http://web.archive.org/web/20111115102843/http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/1998/Jun/hour2_062698.html}).

  2. Finding Background Information on the Topic

    Books, review articles, encyclopedias, and websites are good places to find background information. Some questions to keep in mind when reviewing these materials are: What role do acoustics play in marine biology, marine geology, and physical oceanography? What are the differences between aquatic and terrestrial acoustics? and, What are the most active research labs in acoustical oceanography? The Acoustical Society of America has a good listing of acoustics labs and research projects ({http://www.oal.whoi.edu/~AO/AO_links.html}). The Acoustical Oceanography Research Group of the University of Victoria, British Columbia page ({http://pulson.seos.uvic.ca/}) gives a good idea of the wide range of research being done in this area.

  3. Finding Books on the Topic

    The Acoustical Society of America provides a good bibliography (http://asa.aip.org/publications.html). However, the best place to look for books on your topic is in your library's catalog.

  4. Finding journal Articles on the Topic

    The Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate Page ({http://atocdb.ucsd.edu/}) has good links to journal articles and other resources. The librarian can help you locate other citations on the topic you've chosen.


"During the last two decades," Miller says in opening his discussion of science literacy (1998), "there has been a growing recognition of the importance of increasing the proportion of citizens who are sufficiently scientifically literate to participate in the resolution of public policy disputes over issues involving science and technology."

Shapiro and Hughes (1996) take this a step further. They point out that as our society becomes increasingly dependent upon technology, science literacy becomes increasingly important to anyone who wants to be a participant in society. "[P]ublic issues and social life" they say, "increasingly are affected by information-technology issues -- from intellectual property to privacy and the structure of work to entertainment, art and fantasy life." They then go on to discuss the "conception of the link between knowledge, liberty and happiness -- a conception that is reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution."

At the dawn of a new century, science literacy is intimately connected to these and other issues that deeply affect all of us. Hopefully, the methods outlined in this paper will simplify the task of building webliographies and allow librarians more time for addressing concerns such as these in the research tools they create.


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We welcome your comments about this article.


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