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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2006

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Physics 213: An Example of Faculty/Librarian Collaboration

Patricia T. Viele
Physical Sciences Library
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

For several years I have been pursuing the idea of working with a physics class to integrate information literacy skills into the curriculum. In the summer of 2005 I finally got my chance.

Physics 213: Thermodynamics, Electricity and Magnetism is regularly taught at Cornell during the summer. The class meets daily for six weeks. Professor Richard Wheeler, who has taught the course many times, approached me about designing some assignments for the class.

The first step was deciding on our goals. We decided that we wanted to accomplish three things:

Professor Wheeler and I designed five Internet assignments. The assignments were worth 5% of the students' grades. The assignments were not graded individually; instead I engaged in a discussion with students about their results. We stressed that the students were not to be overly concerned about right or wrong answers. We merely wanted to learn more about how students use the Internet.

The students were given the assignments in Monday's class and I met with them for half an hour on Thursday to discuss results. We collected the assignments and I tabulated the results. Professor Wheeler and I met on Friday to discuss our next step. We designed the next assignment based on the results of the previous week's work. As a result, the web page evaluation form went through several changes. The questions from the assignments are listed below and you can view the complete Internet Assignments at

Internet Assignment Questions
Assignment 1: Find out who, historically, were the people responsible for formulating the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, i.e. work and heat both forms of energy.
Assignment 2: Find out who, historically, were the people responsible for discovering that there are only two electrostatic charges, i.e. plus and minus.
Assignment 3: Given the three web sites listed below. Search these sites for information on Coulombís Law. Given what you have learned in class, evaluate what kind of teaching tool each site is. You might ask yourself questions like this: Is the site accurate? Does the site give any historical perspective? Are there examples of how the Law is applied? Then answer the following questions.
Assignment 4: Suppose you were going to evaluate whether or not someone was using the Internet effectively for research purposes. A starting point might be a simple test to see how that person perceived the Internet. Here are some sample statements. Ask yourself which statements would be effective in determining their competence. Then supply a few possible statements of your own. Finally search the Internet for sites discussing this issue and report your impressions.
Assignment 5: Pat Viele, the Physics and Astronomy Librarian at Cornell, and I have asked you this summer to spend a modest amount of time looking at Internet literacy. Our goals have been for you to:

1. learn some history of the concepts you are studying,
2. demonstrate how to search the Internet for these concepts, and
3. question how you evaluate the information you found on the Internet.

We are interested in how to best instruct other students in uses of the Internet, how to best utilize this resource, and how to integrate this resource into the courses we teach. In this final assignment I would like you to reflect on your experience this summer. How would you structure a learning experience or experiences to help students use the Internet effectively? Are there facets of what you have done this summer that are worthwhile?

The 24 students in the class were mostly sophomore and junior engineering majors. All of them had taken the required Freshman Writing Seminar. Many of the students realized that it is important to make this type of instruction subject specific. Several of them suggested integrating assignments like this into their Engineering 150 class. For Engineering 150, freshmen engineering students are assigned to an engineering faculty member who shepherds them through their first year. It is a one-credit, required course. Currently, each faculty member develops his or her own curriculum.

Several of the students expressed the idea that instruction of this sort should be hands-on. I agree. At the Physical Sciences Library, we teach a one-graduate-credit class named Chemistry 602, Information Sources for the Physical Scientist. The students in Chemistry 602 learn about the most important information sources for their field. My ultimate goal is to develop a similar class geared toward physics graduate students.

While many of the students felt that they were Internet-literate, assignment #4, a true/false quiz about the Internet and World Wide Web, exposed huge gaps in the students' knowledge:

In response to assignment #4, students made some excellent suggestions for a revised quiz.

Internet Assignment #5 asked the students to write a brief paragraph about their experience. We found their feedback to be very helpful.

What did we learn from this experience?

Professor Wheeler summarizes his reactions to the experience this way:

  1. From the very diverse selection of sources students found on the web, given the same problem, I am led to believe there is no uniformity as to how students search the web. This may be good or bad, but it suggests that students could use some guidelines dealing with strategies for finding information and evaluating how accurate and important a given source may be.

  2. I found that the students were interested in the discovery process we tried. Most important, they were interested in discussing the issues with each other in class. They learned by this interaction.

He is already planning for the physics class he will be teaching this spring. He and I agree that the exercise would work better with an end product. He anticipates asking for a three-page paper on a physics topic so the students can demonstrate their use of information sources.

I had some of my previous assumptions validated. I was quite sure that students were not clear on the difference between freely available Internet sites and databases that we license. I also feared that they thought that everything is available on the web. Both of those assumptions were accurate. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the interest and enthusiasm the students showed. Many of them suggested more instruction by librarians.

While we did not formally evaluate this process, the students' comments were very favorable:

Using this experience as a springboard, I hope to create more opportunities to integrate information literacy into the physics curriculum.

Class Web Sites Illustrating Faculty/Librarian Collaboration

ED&G 100 Bonnie Osif, Penn State
Physics 213 Pat Viele, Cornell

Both of the above web sites are scheduled to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

In addition, I have put related materials in {Cornell's Dspace}.

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