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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2007

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One Instructor's Experience with Standard Five...

Irina I. Holden
Outreach/Instructional Services Librarian, Science Library
University at Albany, State University of New York
Albany, New York

Copyright 2007, Irina I. Holden. Used with permission.

Like all Information Literacy instructors in academic libraries, I design my courses to meet to the "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education," approved by the ACRL: {}. As an instructor who teaches information literacy in the Sciences, I also have to take into consideration the "Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology," which were established by the ALA/ACRL/STS Task Force on Information Literacy for Science and Technology ({}). The first three standards match for the two sets mentioned above -- the general info lit competency standards and the Science standards. Then, beginning with Standard Four, some significant distinctions can be noted. But it is Standard Five that I place special emphasis on when preparing for classes and working with my students.

Let's take a look at this standard: "The information literate student understands that information literacy is an ongoing process and an important component of lifelong learning and recognizes the need to keep current regarding new developments in his or her field." It is a clear and concise statement, followed by performance indicators. I often look at those performance indicators and think, what can I do to help my students meet them?

My course, Information Literacy in the Sciences, is a credit-bearing class that meets six or seven times per semester for two hours. As I develop my course outline, I incorporate topics that will help my students become information-literate individuals who understand the wide variety of information resources to which they have access, and who are able to effectively navigate them to meet their educational goals. But Standard Five requires much more. Not only should students be able to access information, they should be able use this skill to keep up with new innovations and developments in their field over the course of time ("lifelong learning").

Traditionally, for-credit information literacy courses at our institution are taught according to a model that develops student research skills along the following sequence: 1) choosing a research topic, 2) formulating a thesis statement, and 3) compiling an annotated bibliography that consists of nine or ten sources (the number of sources depends on the number of times we meet; the more class meetings, the more sources). Students learn how to work with various types of library resources, such as books and reference materials, periodical articles (scholarly and popular, print and online), databases, web resources, primary and secondary sources, etc.

These objectives and activities are standard for general Information Literacy courses. Where then, we may wonder, does the scientific component come into the picture? What distinguishes the Information Literacy in the Sciences course from the general Information Literacy course? The answer lies in their respective research subjects. Since the Information Literacy in the Sciences course is oriented toward research in the natural sciences, I design the curriculum accordingly.

First of all, students are required to develop a research project that focuses on a scientific topic. Most students choose topics from their majors. In the typical semester, about half of my students are biology majors; slightly fewer are physics, chemistry, and atmospheric science majors. I generally have a handful of business majors in each class, and the occasional English, economics or psychology major. Many of the students are freshmen who do not have a clear understanding of the goals and objectives for this class. Fortunately, this is a hands-on class; students get plenty of practice in conducting research. And often, they need a lot of help from the instructor.

I have learned over the years that choosing a topic is extremely difficult for some students. Often, they choose the latest "hot" topic that has been exhaustively covered in the media, and for which there is no end of popular literature available. In order to encourage them to broaden their knowledge (and discourage them from taking the easy way out), I typically compile a list of topics that they are not allowed to choose for their bibliography. This list includes stem cell research, global warming, marijuana, steroids, bird flu, HIV/AIDS, and depression. Instead, I encourage students to find topics that they will have to do a little more work to investigate thoroughly. Examples include rare cancers or diseases, animal or plant species, new scientific theories, scientific mistakes, and chemical elements. I find that investigating a topic about which they have relatively little prior knowledge, and about which there isn't necessarily a wealth of published information, forces students to think more creatively. In the process, both they and I learn a great deal.

The first performance indicator for Standard Five lists several outcomes. One of them is that the information literate student "is able to apply information access skills learned in one subject area to another." I agree that this is a crucial learning outcome in information literacy. In every class I teach, we devote approximately 45 minutes to looking at resources in a particular subject area, such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and mathematics. (Although the standards don't include mathematics, I think it's important for my students to learn how to use MathSciNet.) I also make a point of connecting the type of resource we examine in each class with the corresponding subject. For example, if we are studying databases during a discussion devoted to biology resources, we search databases such as Medline, Health Reference Center Academic, Biological Abstracts, etc. I take the same approach to teaching other resources, such as web resources, primary and secondary sources, etc.

As we make our way from class to class, I can see my students become increasingly comfortable using our library catalog and databases. But I still worry: once they have completed the course, will they continue to use their newly acquired skills, or will they revert to the ease and convenience of search engines like Google? I recently held my last InfoLit of the first quarter. Curious to know what my students thought about the course, I reviewed the standards for Information Literacy in Science and Engineering/Technology with them, and asked if they felt they had acquired the requisite skills to meet them. Their response was uniformly positive. When I specifically asked about Standard Five, my students assured me that they understood the standard and thought they had, in fact, acquired the skills to become lifelong learners. I sighed with relief and gave myself a few moments to bask in the success of the class. Then I began to plan my next class, which starts in ten days....

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