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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2001


Specialized Remote User Education: Web-Based Tutorials for Engineering Graduate Students

Susan Ardis
Head Engineering and Science Libraries Division

Jennifer Haas
Head, Science and Technology Electronic Information Center

The General Libraries
The University of Texas at Austin

The McKinney Engineering Library, while part of the General Libraries, is a stand-alone collection located about a 1/2 mile north of the main library in the center of six science and engineering buildings. We serve a user population of approximately 360 faculty, 1,900 graduate students, and 4,600 undergraduate students. Graduate students have historically constituted 50% of our user activity: that is asking questions and checking out books, etc.

The Sci/Tech Electronic Information Center (EIC) is located within the Engineering library, with satellite stations in the Chemistry, Geology, Life Science, and Physics Mathematics-Astronomy Libraries. The EIC provides login-based access to controlled science, library and university functions.


We have always believed that if you teach engineering students how to find information they will return, physically, mentally, bearing gifts for years to come. Therefore over the past 25 years the McKinney Engineering Library at the University of Texas has been involved in an active user education program. This program has operated in two areas: class integrated instruction and open walk-in classes both of which reach around 1,400 students a year. These tend to reach undergraduates; however graduate students are the most politically and pedagogically important group because they make the most demands on our collections and services. This is important but even more important is the fact the in engineering graduate students form the "workforce" of research. Their library and information access experiences can influence how faculty feel about the library. We needed to find an efficient, exciting, dynamic, and relevant way to reach this important group. Whatever we do should also be fun.

Today's engineering graduate students are part of a generation that has been using computer technology for a lifetime to communicate, for entertainment, and as an information source. A large number of students come to the library with experience using search engines such as or Consequently, they are quite facile in using keywords. Thirdly, their use of search engines has firmly convinced them that finding information is easy--it's all just a couple of "clicks" away. Finally we have noticed that they have a tendency to give up if they cannot easily find what need. However, we know from experience that they often confuse search engines with online indexes and they have a limited idea of what specialized engineering tools exist, where to find them, or even how to use them.

Staff felt a strong obligation to share our experience and knowledge as well encourage usage of expensive tools. As a result we wanted some way to:

Decision--a Tutorial:

We had just completed a highly successful hands-on class for the graduate students of powerful faculty member. He had talked to the dean about our class and suggested that the dean recommend that all faculty take advantage of our classes. The dean expressed interest in such a plan. We were suddenly faced with the kind of attention we thought we wanted and that is when we had to think about what we could actually deliver. Suddenly the potential of presenting hands-on instruction to only a portion of our 1,900 graduate students seemed daunting with our limited staff (three librarians, two paraprofessionals, and five classified staff).

We quickly determined that given the messages we wanted to deliver and the number of students we could potentially need to reach, a web-based tutorial seemed to be the best approach. Other advantages of a tutorial were that we could include more information than can normally be presented in the typical class period and students could use it on their own time, returning as needed. On the theory that you do not need to "re-invent the wheel--just steal the hubcaps" we looked at existing web-based information tutorials, including UT's award winning {TILT}. We soon discovered that most are aimed at undergraduate liberal arts or social sciences audiences. These meet a need; they just do not meet our need. We wanted to provide our provide users with remote, integrated, just-in-time help using the specialized, scholarly access tools or information purchased by the library for specialized engineering research.

We decided to develop our own web-based tutorial aimed at the specialized information gathering needs of engineering graduate students.

How it was developed:

A speedy implementation was desired primarily to "hit-while-the-iron-was hot" and take advantage of the dean's interest in graduate student library instruction. But another reason was that we could use the outline and our experience gain in this highly praised session. The outline provided the beginning structure for the first two parts of our tutorial.

The last part of the tutorial deals with additional resources and is based on the strengths of the Engineering Library collection as well as questions we routinely get from upper division classes working on design projects. Students in design classes routinely ask about patents, industry standards, finding data, finding product information and often come up against limited access to proprietary information. As a result, these topics were included in the tutorial.

Over a three-month period of time, the tutorial was developed using Microsoft FrontPage. The focus at this phase of development was content, so limited attention was given to creating graphics, animation and complex page designs. Once a draft was completed, librarians and other staff at the Engineering Library edited the pages and suggested additional topics that needed to be addressed.

Once we received input on the tutorial from the library perspective, we were eager to find out what representatives from out target audience thought of the tutorial. Graduate student volunteers reviewed the draft tutorial and provided excellent feedback. It was in response to a student suggestion that we added the FAQ option for navigating through the tutorial. Overall, the response was positive and made us feel that we were on the right track with the tutorial.

With the content of the tutorial determined, the intention now is to focus on developing a look and feel for the tutorial. We will do this by maintaining simple, easy to read pages; creating suitable graphics for the content without being too large, take too long to load or detract from the content of the site; and not require the use of special plug-ins. There is a temptation to try and create a professional looking product in-house without any particular design expertise. We have resisted this temptation and asked for help from graphic designers who work for another library division but offer their services to web authors in all branches of the UT Austin libraries.

In the early planning stages for a web-based tutorial, the theme of digging or mining for information was proposed and from this came the "Information Excavation" concept. Not only is this suitable for our engineering audience, it also provides countless options for graphics and logos to be used in the promotion of the finished product. We also hoped that this might provide us with financial sponsorship possibilities from the construction industry.

What it covers:

Our tutorial, called Information Excavation, is divided into three parts. The first part covers searching the Internet to find information. The focus here is finding information that is freely available on the Internet. Part two covers using the resources of the UT Austin libraries. Here users will find information on finding books in the libraries, journal articles and conference papers, and using our full-text online resources. We have also added a couple of Information Excavation Extras to this section with additional useful information. The last portion provides some tips and suggestions for locating resources we have found to be helpful for engineering students. Topics covered in this section include finding industry standards, patents, finding specific data, and the nature of proprietary information.

The complete table of contents for the session is as follows:

  1. Searching the Internet
    What's Free on the Web
    Search Engines -- Overview and Advice
    Search Tips
    Evaluating Web Sites
    What the Search Engines Do not Find

  2. UT Library Online - UT Austin Library Web Site
    UT Library Online (Information Excavation Extra! Libraries on the UT Austin Campus)
    Using UT Library Online Resources to find Free Resources on the Web
    UTNetCAT, Our Library Catalog
    Finding Books (Information Excavation Extra! What Does a Reference Librarian Do?)
    Finding Conference Proceedings
    Scientific and Technical Articles
    Finding Scientific and Technical Articles
    Full-Text Online or On Paper in the Libraries
    Taking the Guesswork out of Abbreviations
    Journals - Full-Text vs. Paper (Information Excavation Extra! Sharpen your Research Skills with TILT)

  3. Tips and Advice -- Resources to Keep in Mind
    Patents -- A Great Source of Information
    Finding Data and Specific Properties or Facts
    Company Information/Proprietary Information
    Product Information/Specifications
    Industry Standards
    Finding Images on the Web

Working through "Information Excavation" from start to finish provides a user with a thorough introduction to finding information. While new students and foreign students find it helpful to work through the session step by step, graduate students with some experience using the library may prefer to work through only selected sections. Students who just need a refresher can choose the Frequently Asked Questions option for navigating through the tutorial and to get the highlights.

How it's marketed:

Even the best web-based tutorial will be valueless if no one uses it. Most graduate students have busy schedules. We also know from experience that they won't use something that seems time consuming or boring. It must catch their attention and demonstrate value immediately. The latter is important because we know from experience they do not really believe that there is anything to learn--they believe they can just "parse" or "gut" it out. They have great faith in their own ability to figure things out--after all "finding information is easy, you just need a couple of keywords." In short, fun and interesting are important.

The tutorial is being heavily marketed through the College of Engineering, the Engineering Library, and the General Libraries. This marketing has several thrusts:

However, if the tutorial is to be successful we must have faculty and college administrator "buy-in," as well as student use. We assumed that faculty recommendations plus student "word-of-mouth" about the availability of a premium would encourage student use. To get College and faculty buy in we are:


We decided early on that a premium might get through the miasma of research and overconfidence by playing on a desire to get something free and we know most everyone likes freebies. Our premium had to play a several roles--it should be desirable, it should reinforce our message, and it needed to be free to us. We gave a lot of to which freebie would be the most compelling: pens, mouse pads, bags, or insulated cups and how to go about getting the premium.

Actually it did not take much thought or research to come up with cups. At the time of our discussion Austin had just gone through one of the hottest summers on record--over 40 days above 100 degrees. Carrying a cool drink became a necessity. We decided to play on this and give out insulated cups. To carry our message these cups had to have on one side:

On the other side they could have a "brought to you by" or "in support of" statement along with the

We contacted several vendors whom we thought would be interested in advertising their services to engineering graduate students. One was not interested and in fact specifically said that they did not see graduate students as a potential market. "Tant pis." Another did not respond. However, one responded almost immediately. They produced 300 red insulated cups with their logo on one side and our information on the other side in fewer than five weeks.

Even though our tutorial is aimed at graduate students we decided not to discriminate. If an undergraduate completes the tutorial, great, they can get a cup, too. Students who have successfully completed the tutorial they are instructed to print out the coupon and bring it to the Engineering Library where they pick up their cup.


Times are changing and we must change with them. The Internet makes it easier to reach more people at more times. It also makes it possible to show them how to use electronic tools, electronically. But what has not changed is our responsibility to provide our users with high quality help. We may not have the staff for 24-hour phone or chat but we do have the staff and the expertise to create topical help for our users. Our tutorial is just the beginning of what we hope will be a long line of specialized tutorials aimed at various subject user groups. It is also the beginning salvo in what we hope will be an aggressive program to market information access to our primary user base.

Our advice--try one you'll like it.

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