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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4ZW1HVJ


Science Seeker: A New Model for Teaching Information Literacy to Entry-Level Biology Undergraduates

Jacquelyn Petzold
Reference and Instruction Librarian
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska

Brian Winterman
Information Fluency and Assessment Librarian
Teaching and Learning Liaison to the Sciences
Indiana University, Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

Kristi Montooth
Assistant Professor of Biology
Department of Biology
Indiana University, Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

Copyright 2010, Jacquelyn Petzold, Brian Winterman,and Kristi Montooth. Used with permission.


In order to integrate library instruction seamlessly into an introductory biology course, two librarians collaborated with a biology faculty member to create a three-part series of instruction sessions known as the Science Seeker. The Science Seeker taught students about the structure of scientific information by tracing the path that discoveries take from the laboratory to the textbook. By using concepts from the course, students learned about biology while simultaneously learning information literacy skills as a central communication skill for scientists. This article describes the planning, execution, and evaluation of this unique approach to course-based library instruction for science majors.


Many undergraduate science courses are comprised of a lecture that is designed to impart and assess domain-specific knowledge and a laboratory that is designed to facilitate an understanding of scientific methods through hands-on learning. Yet science undergraduates, particularly those preparing for graduate study, also require an understanding of how scientific knowledge is organized and transmitted to different audiences. The ability to acquire, evaluate, and synthesize scientific information is critical to the development of research skills and scientific literacy (ACRL 2000). Learning to navigate literature indexes and identify relevant search results often takes substantial practice, while understanding the content of journal articles and other dense scientific materials often requires a significant degree of advanced subject knowledge.

Previous instructional services for entry-level undergraduates at Indiana University have been in the format of one-shot sessions that focus primarily on access and use of journal literature indexes such as PubMed or Web of Science. While these sessions may help undergraduate students find articles to complete assignments, they do little to teach these skills in the context of the scientific research process. Also, because of large class sizes, time limitations, and the relative inexperience with disciplinary practice on the part of the students, expectations regarding higher information literacy achievement and the more sophisticated synthesis of information associated with it have been very low.

This paper will present the design, implementation, and assessment of the Science Seeker curriculum. The Science Seeker was developed as a novel way to bridge the gap between the process of science in the laboratory and the communication of science in the literature without unnecessarily overwhelming neophyte scientists. Lower-division undergraduate biology students enrolled in L111: Evolution & Diversity were asked to select a topic from their textbook and follow the development of this topic reverse chronologically through the literature until they arrived at a primary source that demonstrated the empirical validity of the concept. This approach was designed to demonstrate to students that the biological principles recorded in their textbooks did not spring forth fully formed from the mind of a single scientist but are instead constructed and revised based on the observations and experimental results of a large community of scientists. The three-part sequence of Science Seeker library instruction sessions gradually exposed students to the fundamental tenets of information literacy while also expanding their knowledge of biological principles in a meaningful way. Specific assignments and exercises, methods of assessment, and results will be described and discussed.

Literature Review

In recent years, the issue of whether to teach information literacy competencies in a general context or in a subject-specific context has been hotly debated. Some educators view information literacy as a set of core competencies that can be used in a variety of contexts for different purposes, regardless of academic discipline. This point of view underlies the rationale for the creation of stand-alone credit-bearing courses that focus primarily on generic strategies for interacting with information, and it implies that information literacy can serve as a discrete course of study separated from any established disciplinary framework (Colborn 2006). Grafstein (2002) builds the case that information literacy is most meaningful when it is woven into the fabric of higher education as an integral part of the curriculum. She argues that both librarians and teaching faculty should play an active role in empowering students to construct knowledge from information by building onto the framework provided by disciplinary paradigms. This philosophy is embodied by the "embedded librarian" concept, which has been described by Dewey (2004), Matthew and Schroeder (2006), and others. An embedded librarian seeks to maintain continuing contact with the instructors and students of a particular course, gaining insight into the curricular process while providing ongoing support, guidance, and feedback for students as they work on projects that require the use of library materials or other information resources. The Science Seeker realizes many of the benefits of this type of subject-specific approach to teaching information literacy.

Undergraduates who are relative newcomers to the world of scientific endeavor require an understanding of the scientific literature in order to fully grasp the value of the scientific method, which is the process by which new ideas are tested and old ideas are modified, supported, or discredited in light of the larger body of science (Kosso 2009). The system of scholarly communication grew out of the need for scholars to communicate their findings, often using highly technical language, in order to disseminate and critically evaluate new knowledge in their fields. After all, discoveries that are not communicated to others may as well have never happened (Slutsky 1993). Some evidence suggests that undergraduate students tend to overestimate their proficiency with obtaining and using top-notch research materials. For example, in a recent survey of undergraduate biology majors, 79 percent of respondents stated that they were "comfortable" or "very comfortable" with "accessing sources of information," even though most admitted that they used Google as primary mode of searching (Ferguson 2006). A more recent study has shown that teaching information literacy skills in the context of developing research proposals results in improved learning and performance among upper-level biology undergraduates (Winterman 2009). Still, there remains a need for entry-level students to learn about the specialized nature of the scientific literature and the wealth of high-quality research materials that are not freely available on the web.

Although library instruction has historically been viewed as an opportunity for librarians to showcase the functions of the library by demonstrating a database, giving a tour, or guiding students through a resource, these lessons can often be divorced from the central themes that are relevant to students' coursework. By ignoring the content and culture of the classroom, librarians often fail to adequately build the type of synergy that is necessary to authentically engage students in the process of retrieving and using published information. Several innovators in undergraduate science education have suggested practical ways to attempt a more seamless integration of information literacy and critical thinking into the curriculum. For example, Hostettler and Wolfe (1984) proposed an introduction to the literature of chemistry known as Chemical Literature Exercises and Resources (CLEAR). CLEAR required students to use the tertiary chemical literature to answer a list of general questions, the secondary literature to create a bibliography, and the primary literature to answer a list of more specialized questions. While this method of demystifying the chemical literature introduced the use of different types of information sources for different purposes, the authors note that the topics covered were not intimately tied with the course material, which affected the students' level of interest and motivation. Students also did not follow the evolution of a single topic through the primary, secondary, and tertiary literature, which may have obscured the big-picture idea that different types of resources provide information at different levels of complexity for different purposes. Lillig (2008) describes a semester-long writing-intensive chemistry assignment that asked upper-division students in a biochemistry course to make sense of data included in the results section of a journal article related to a biochemical topic. Students were expected to analyze the results with respect to the author's hypothesis and explain how this study contributed to the larger body of knowledge in the field. Lillig notes that this assignment allowed the students to understand the data-driven nature of science without using expensive materials or blindly following established protocols that they may or may not fully understand. Like these two examples, the Science Seeker sought to encourage students to become more authentically engaged with the scientific process and the communication of scientific ideas by looking closely at published scientific documents.


The Science Seeker was an outgrowth of the desire to show the connection between the neatly packaged "facts" of the introductory biology textbook and the vastly more complicated and interesting conversations about science that take place in the literature. To achieve this, students were asked to trace the evolution of a scientific topic backwards through the literature by starting with their textbook and using citations or keyword searches to find the same principles in a web site, an encyclopedia article, a scholarly monograph, and a peer-reviewed journal article. The Science Seeker sessions took place over three non-consecutive weeks in a computer lab during the course's regularly scheduled learning group sections. Learning groups were mandatory weekly meetings of a smaller subset of 8-30 students enrolled in the course. These groups were led by an associate instructor (AI), who was either a graduate student or an upper-level undergraduate student with expertise in the subject. The smaller learning group environment also allowed for greater flexibility in the format of class discussions and facilitated a two-way dialogue that is far more difficult to achieve in a large lecture hall. The librarian could abandon the lecture format and instead encourage students to converse with each other about some of the more abstract information literacy principles, creating a more interactive and engaging environment for both the students and the librarian.

Advanced planning is crucial for course-integrated library instruction. In order to demonstrate that library research is an integral component of the learning process, the dates for library instruction sessions and the details of graded assignments were described in the course syllabus before the beginning of the semester. When planned lessons about library-related principles are included in the syllabus, students are more likely to view information competencies as critical for their mastery of course material (Selin 1988). This is particularly true when library-related assignments are given equal weight with other course assignments of similar size and scope. Because the Science Seeker took place during the learning groups, the format of the assignments for the Science Seeker were patterned after the worksheets that students were already required to complete on a weekly basis for their learning groups. Each weekly worksheet contained open-ended questions that asked students to reflect on the research process and to report on their progress toward narrowing down their topic. It also provided space to record relevant keywords, synonyms, citations, or noteworthy scientists.

A pre-test survey revealed that only 43 percent of students enrolled in L111 had received any type of library instruction before the start of the Science Seeker. Given the popularity of one-shot library instruction sessions, many of these interactions with librarians had probably been fairly brief in duration. To demonstrate that the objectives of the Science Seeker were slightly more involved than that of a typical library instruction session, the librarian used the first ten minutes of the first session to give an overview of how the system of scholarly communication relates to the scientific method by using examples from the students' textbook. She then showed a diagram that served as a simplified representation of the route that scientific findings travel from the laboratory bench to texts for the layperson. This diagram was shown several times during the course of the Science Seeker to visually depict the progress that students had made in exploring resources on their topics. Below is a similar but more detailed diagram of the Science Seeker process:


Teaching and Learning Objectives and the ACRL Standards

The specific instructional objectives of the Science Seeker project were based on the Association of College and Research Libraries' Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (ACRL 2000). These standards make a useful planning guide because they ensure that students understand how to interact with information at each stage of the information-seeking process. Although the standards are discussed sequentially here as they relate to different phases of the Science Seeker, each concept was introduced to students as it became relevant to the research process. This was due in large part to the open-ended, semi-structured format of the Science Seeker.

Standard 1: Determine the nature and extent of information needed

Like many class assignments, the type and amount of information required to complete the Science Seeker was outlined by the course instructor and librarian. The course instructor compiled a list of broad topics (e.g., "behavioral evolution" or "species interactions") that could be found in the specialized print and electronic life sciences encyclopedias owned by the library. Within these broad topics, students were free to follow their library research down any path that captured their interest (e.g., "the influence of marine noise pollution on whale singing" or "malaria parasite interactions within human hosts"). During the first week of the Science Seeker, students were encouraged to read encyclopedia articles about several topics before selecting one. In addition, many of the students who started with the same broad topic found themselves reading about vastly different areas by the time they had narrowed their focus down to the primary source level. This approach to topic selection enabled students to be intellectually invested in their library research, while at the same time ensuring that students would be able to find an adequate number of relevant resources on their topic.

Standard 2: Access needed information effectively and efficiently

Students were taught how to search the library catalog and the Web of Science literature index. In addition to the basics of Boolean logic, nesting, truncation, retrieving full text, and using synonyms, the librarian stressed the importance of selecting the correct tool for the type of information being sought.

Standard 3: Evaluate information and sources critically and incorporate information into knowledge base and value system

Although they may not be a traditional mode of scholarly communication, web sites vary widely in quality and therefore provide a wealth of material for teaching about the evaluation of information sources. In addition, students are comfortable with using search engines to find web resources, which means they are likely to continue to rely on web sites for information long after they have lost access to the university's restricted library resources. During the instruction session, students worked in small groups to determine the quality of an assigned web site. The web sites were in some way related to biology, and each was hand-selected because it demonstrated a particular weakness, such as the heavily-biased Conservapedia article on evolution or the flashy but inaccurate articles on the web site of the fictitious RYT Hospital. Together the class compiled a list of general quality indicators (e.g., authority, currency) that could be applied to any information source, which the librarian recorded on the classroom chalkboard. The librarian was then able to transition to a discussion about the process of peer review and the merits of relying on information that has been vetted for quality by experts.

Standard 4: Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

Like many course-based instruction endeavors, the completion of a required project was the underlying purpose of the Science Seeker. However, because the Science Seeker required a significant investment of time and effort on the part of the students, it served as a springboard for several different course assignments. Students were motivated to engage in more extensive and meticulous library research because their efforts were rewarded with several opportunities to showcase their newly acquired knowledge. Each student was asked to complete the following:

Standard 5: Understand many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information

During the first session, the librarian explained the purpose and requirements of the Science Seeker in broad terms by talking about the flow of scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the textbook. This segued into a discussion about the significance of authority and the value of giving credit to the work of others. Students were asked to brainstorm a list of reasons for citing sources with possible explanations ranging from "plagiarism is bad" to "showing that I have read up on this topic gives me credibility." Students then received an APA style guide sheet with examples of how to cite print and electronic materials in all formats, and they worked together in small groups to format a citation for an example journal article. This naturally provided fodder for a discussion about the importance of keeping track of citations for sources both because of the ethical importance of giving credit to the authors and because of the ease with which a bibliography could be created for the Science Seeker final project. By using class discussions and small group exercises, students contemplated the larger issues surrounding the responsible use of information and demonstrated their knowledge to rest of the class with a minimal amount of instructor guidance.


In order to gauge the Science Seeker's level of effectiveness, students were asked to complete an assessment of their information literacy knowledge before and after participating in Science Seeker. The pre-test and post-test (Appendix) were an identical written test consisting of multiple choice questions. Each of the questions assessed the students' competency with an aspect of some of the ACRL Standards (e.g., What would you examine to determine whether a web site is providing good, useful information?). Other competencies were met by the successful completion of and participation in the Science Seeker process. The following table describes the overall results:

ACRL Information Literacy Standard

Application Within Science Seeker

1. Determine the extent of information needed

Students selected a topic from a pre-approved list and performed exploratory searches to decide whether they could find sufficient information for the project.

2. Access needed information effectively and efficiently

Students searched Web of Science and the library catalog to find relevant resources. After the Science Seeker, 63% of students understood the purpose of Web of Science versus 53% before the Science Seeker.

3. Evaluate information and its sources critically

Students learned about the types of information found in different sources. After the Science Seeker, students were 18% more likely to understand that journal articles provide authoritative information for academic papers.

4. Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

Students incorporated the information they collected at each stage of the Science Seeker into their report and Data Blast.

5. Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information

Students discussed the issues surrounding plagiarism and learned how to cite sources in APA style.

Table 1: Summary of the incorporation of ACRL Standards into the Science Seeker

The students performed considerably better on the multiple-choice section of the evaluation after completing the Science Seeker exercises (see Table 1). Most of the students could identify the purpose of different type of documents (e.g., an encyclopedia article versus a primary article), although some confusion remained about the purpose of the review article, which was not heavily covered during the instruction. Overall, it appeared that students either performed extremely well on the post-test or did not perform well at all. The course instructor agreed that this is often how students perform on in-class examinations as well.

Table 2: Mean, mode, and median of the number of correct responses (out of 7 questions) on the pre-test and post test taken by students involved in the Science Seeker.

The students responded remarkably positively to the Science Seeker. When questioned on the course evaluation, 81.25% of students recommended that the instructor continue to use the Science Seeker format in this course in the future. This is a rather surprising level of enthusiasm for an assignment that required students to identify primary literature on their chosen topic, write a formal paper, and give an oral presentation before their peers and professor.


Many of the benefits of the Science Seeker stemmed from its seamless integration with the course. In addition to performing library research, students were challenged to improve their communication, writing, and analytical thinking skills through the written assignments and the Data Blast presentation. This relatively intense engagement with a rather narrowly-defined topic mirrors the type of prolonged and focused engagement that scientists bring to their areas of research. By clearly showing the iterative path that science travels from the laboratory to the textbooks, students gained an appreciation for both the way scientific knowledge is discovered and the way it is disseminated to different audiences.

The course instructor noted that this type of integrated library instruction was beneficial because it leveraged the learning group format in a meaningful way. Since each group included no more than 30 students, it was possible for the students to spend time in the computer lab searching for materials on their topic at each stage and receiving individual help when necessary. In many cases, troubleshooting students' difficulties demonstrated the greatest benefits of the collaborative nature of this project. The librarian could help students navigate confusing interfaces or create better searches while the associate instructor in charge of the class could explain a foreign biological concept or help a student determine whether a particular primary article matched his or her topic. The combined presence of one instructor with subject expertise and one instructor with library expertise created a unique learning environment for students that enhanced their ability to both retrieve and use relevant materials. In addition, the librarian learned more about the biology curriculum and the specific needs of biology undergraduates while the course instructor gained a better understanding of the library's services and resources.

The collaborative relationship also allowed the librarian to actively participate in the educational process in a way that is often not possible. Students could discuss the details of the assignment with their course instructor, their associate instructor, or the librarian and receive specialized help depending on which area the students found challenging. Likewise, the three-part format gave the students the opportunity to develop a relationship with the librarian in a neutral environment that may be somewhat less intimidating than the library. On at least one occasion, a student stayed after class to ask the librarian a library-related question that was not related to the Science Seeker assignments. This demonstrates the outreach potential of working closely with an undergraduate class.

The Science Seeker will be modified slightly for future L111 classes. Although creating in-text citations was not covered during any of the sessions, the lack of appropriate citations in some students' finished projects suggests that this convention should be introduced and discussed in some detail in future Science Seeker iterations. In addition, the fact that many students grasped most of the concepts with relative ease means that the Science Seeker could probably be covered in two learning group sessions instead of three.


Integration of information literacy principles with traditional teaching methods has proven to be an effective way to improve the teaching and learning experience of instructors, students, and librarians. Not only does information literacy education fit seamlessly with many educational goals, but it also appears to result in an enhanced model for the classroom and curricula. Furthermore, collaboration between librarians and instructors, whether through assignment consultation, syllabus design, or a true team-teaching environment, has been demonstrated to be beneficial for all parties involved. Teaching higher-level information literacy skills to entry-level biology students has been a great challenge in the past. The Science Seeker appears to be an effective model for achieving this. However, this particular study required a substantial time commitment from library staff, which is not always possible. While the physical presence of library staff in the teaching and learning process is undeniably valuable, it is not necessarily a sustainable or scalable model for all library systems. Future efforts might explore ways to accomplish what the Science Seeker does with a method of delivery that is not as time-consuming and demanding of in-person librarian assistance.


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Pre- and Post-Test

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