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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1997

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Training the Trainers: Creating A Workshop on Teaching Chemical Information

Charles F. Huber
Davidson Library
University of California, Santa Barbara

Grace Baysinger
Swain Chemistry Library
Stanford University


Researchers in chemistry, whether in academia or industry, need training in the use of chemical information resources. The American Chemical Society's {Committee on Professional Training} has long recognized the need for {chemical information instruction} as part of the general preparation for both undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry. Even in this era of powerful electronic resources designed for end-user chemists, there is still a need for many types of chemical information instruction.

However, in both academic and corporate settings, such instruction is often carried out by chemists with little or no library training, or librarians with little or no formal chemistry training, and in either case, frequently little training in instructional methods. To help meet these needs, the Education Committee of the ACS {Division of Chemical Information (CINF)} has sponsored workshops on teaching chemical information at ACS National Meetings, regional meetings and at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education. These workshops, developed and taught for the most part by Arleen Somerville (Carlson Library, University of Rochester) and Dr. Adrienne Kozlowski (Department of Chemistry, Central Connecticut State University) have proven very successful. In an effort to reach new audiences, the CINF Education Committee joined forces with the {Chemistry Division} of the Special Libraries Association to offer the workshop as a Continuing Education course at the 1997 SLA Annual Meeting in Seattle. The authors, Grace Baysinger and Chuck Huber, volunteered to adapt the existing workshop and teach it at Seattle.

Both the March, 1996 version of the Somerville/Kozlowski workshop and our June, 1997 workshop are available at the CINF Education Committee website. Therefore, this paper is not a recapitulation of the contents of the workshop, but rather a description of the process we went through in designing our workshop and how it reflects some of the lessons we thought were valuable in teaching chemical information in general.

Tailoring Your Material to the Audience and Setting

Both of us had taken the workshop ourselves at one or more ACS meetings, both to make use of the lessons in our own chemical information instruction at our home libraries and to prepare for doing the workshop ourselves. Our very first decision was to follow precedent and team-teach the workshop. Three or four hours is a long time for one person to talk; it's also a long time for an audience to listen to a single voice. By dividing up the major responsibilities for the various sections of the workshop (with the other instructor free to interject comments at any time), we hoped to keep both the audience and us from tiring. With the previous version of the workshop available to us, we felt that we had a strong platform to build on, strong enough that we could adapt it in a long-distance collaboration without too much effort, but we agreed that, even beyond routine updating, we should look at the needs of our particular workshop and revise accordingly.

Previous versions of the workshop had attracted primarily librarians and chemistry faculty who would be applying the material in an academic setting. We were hoping and expecting that we would be drawing a mixture of academic and corporate librarians, so we'd need to address a wider variety of training situations than the original workshop had tackled. We added some additional material on analyzing the needs of the instructor's audience versus the available resources, and we added some additional types of teaching situations (short course, tutorials) that hadn't been covered in the previous incarnations of the workshop. In retrospect, we probably still tended to think more in terms of an academic setting than an industrial one -- not surprising given our backgrounds, but a potential area of improvement for future workshops.

Also, we expected that the audience at an SLA meeting would be less likely to have a strong chemistry background than the audience at an ACS meeting, and so might need somewhat more coverage of the key sources which might be taught in a chemical information course. Fortunately, the SLA Continuing Education course format was set up for four hours rather than the three hour session which the ACS workshops had used, so we hoped we would have enough time to hit all the key points. We separated out some of the coverage of core sources of chemical information from where they had appeared in the original workshop, and fleshed out sections with material developed as handouts in the chemical information course we had taught at our respective institutions. Integrating the material from all these sources might have required a lot of rewriting, but in this case, technology was on our side.

Adapting Your Instruction to the Available Technology: the Web as a Presentation Tool

One point which we stressed in the workshop is how strongly the technology available in your setting will affect what and how you teach. This affects both which tools your students will be able to access, how much training they'll need to use them effectively. Moreover, the technology available in the teaching environment will determine what you can demonstrate, whether the students can do hands-on practice in class, and so forth.

In the case of the workshop, we were fortunate in that Grace had access to a laptop computer which she could bring to Seattle for the workshop, and we arranged for a projection display unit with the convention organizers. This gave us the freedom to bring our materials together in electronic form (though we agreed to have a set of transparencies made up in case Murphy's Law kicked in!) We initially considered using Microsoft PowerPoint or similar presentation software as the platform for our displays, but decided instead to create our "slides" as HTML documents and use Netscape Navigator as our presentation software. This turned out to have a number of significant advantages:

With this approach, we were able to assemble the workshop collaboratively with only one face-to-face meeting before the conference itself. The day before the workshop, we got together in Seattle, transferred the HTML files from floppies to the hard drive of Grace's laptop, and tested all the links to make sure that all the pointers were correct -- for use on the laptop, the files needed to be in the same directory, and the pointers go to the file name, e.g. <a href="184sch97.html"> as opposed to the original web site <a href="http://www.library.ucsb.edu/classes/chem184/184sch97.html">

We knew that we would not have a live Internet connection in the room at the convention center, due to the prohibitive cost, so we operated from the laptop only. But we probably would have done so even with an available connection. We'd recommend that any time you may be teaching away from home and are not absolutely sure of the speed and quality of your net connection, you're better off using files on your own computer -- response time will be much faster, and Murphy's Law will have less room to operate. Hotel and convention center phone lines are especially notorious for their ability to break down at crucial moments. All in all, we were extremely pleased with the web browser as presentation software approach.

The growth of the web as a medium for distributing support materials also proved a boon to both us and the attendees. Previous workshops had distributed hefty packets of reference materials graciously provided by publishers, database producers and vendors. Both the presenters and the attendees could count on getting quite a bit of exercise lugging this materials around airports, hotels, and convention centers. Now we were able to forego most of this material in favor of providing a list of the publishers' URLs from which the relevant documents could be downloaded as needed. We did provide (as a spiral-bound workbook) copies of all of the web pages we had created for the class, to save the attendees's time in taking notes and to give them something tangible to take home with them. One oversight we made was that the handouts printed directly from the web pages didn't always have the full URL for each link's real home written out explicitly for later use. We had gotten spoiled by the ability to pick the URLs from the source code of the pages when they were on the web; this will be corrected in future editions.

Building on Your Results: What We Learned From Teaching This Workshop

One of the approaches which we stressed that instructors should try to inculcate in their end users is the iterative approach to literature searching: take your best shot with the leads you have in hand, identify the good sources you find in the first step, then extract a new set of leads and try again. Similarly, we tried to analyze our own sense of how the workshop went as well as the evaluations turned in by the attendees to get ideas for future incarnations of the workshop.

Though we were generally satisfied with the success of our long-distance collaboration, there were still some rough edges which could have been worked out. While we had divided up the actual lecture responsibilities successfully, we still could have used some more rehearsal time to reduce the tendency just to read what's on the screen and to interact better with each other and the audience. Barring a deep pool of frequent flier miles, there's not too much we could have done to improve on it before the conference, but in the future allowing for a full day session the day before the workshop to iron out the rough spots would have been helpful.

Similarly, there were some rough spots in the resource material, mainly references too closely tied to our own libraries's resources, which could have been improved. Here we may have underestimated the lead time needed to convert our pre-existing handouts and web documents into forms better suited for the workshop audience. This happened despite the emphasis we placed in the workshop on the time-consuming nature of preparing a good chemical information presentation.

Our evaluations were generally very positive. One frequent, though not universal, suggestion was that we had too much material to cover adequately in the four hour session. We also felt that we would have benefitted from more time, especially in the section on core resources. The attendees's level of expertise in resources varied quite a bit, and some had come with the expectation of learning how to use, for instance, the Beilstein Handbook. More question and answer time would have been useful as well.

All these lessons will be applied -- at next year's SLA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, IN, Chuck will be teaching the workshop again, this time teamed with Bartow Culp of the Mellon Chemistry Library, Purdue University. Already one recommendation has been applied: we've split the workshop into two separate four-hour sessions; the first on instructional techniques and the second on core sources of chemical information. Attendees may register for either or both. Assuming that the instructors don't collapse by the end of the day, this should allow plenty of time for a more thorough and leisurely discussion of the topics. With hard work and a bit of luck, the other lessons should also bear fruit in June, 1998, and on the web thereafter.

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