Science literacy, science knowledge

I should start this post with a caveat that I am neither a scientist nor a science educator, but I would make the case that I am scientifically literate.  There are two issues that I want to discuss here; scientific knowledge, and scientific literacy.  Both are different, yet both are related and both are disturbingly low.

I was shocked when I saw a recent report by the NSF serious lack of scientific knowledge. Just as an example,

  • 24% of americans think the sun revolves around the earth
  • 47% believe electrons are bigger than atoms
  • 45% don’t know how long it takes the sun to go around the earth.
  • 1/3 believe astrology to scientific or somewhat scientific.

These facts are certainly disturbing, and they raise serious question about the state of science education in America.  This is especially true when one considers that 40% of Americans believe that God created human beings and animal life exactly as they are less than 10,000 years ago. See:
(on an entirely personal note i do find it refreshing that belief in science and belief is god are no longer mutually exclusive and 38% of Americans believe in evolutionary theory and believe in a god that played a part in that evolution).

Studies like these should make science educators squirm.  Why do 37% of people with college degrees believe the world was created in the present form less than 10,000 ago.  How have college graduates not learned science?

Well I don’t blame the students.  It’s too easy to sit back and say “ha ha Americans are stupid” (don’t fool yourself to think Canadians do that much better in science).  It is the fault of the education system.

Why blame education? Well this is my theory (and I admit it is easier to blame science education than take personal responsibility by I will still voice my theory).  Science education in many classrooms has become about learning scientific facts, that is to say rote memorization of scienctific facts, scientific laws, and formulas for working out the mathematics. Students who want to do well on exams have figured out all you have to do is memorize the formulas.  Many (not all) classes are set up to encourage no critical engagement (see my earlier post where a Harvard Physic instructor figured out his students could learn all the newtonians laws but could not critically evaluate the world in a newtonian way). Students can reproduce memorized facts, but are unable to internalize the knowledge and do not let it influence the way they think about the world.  For many students science has become a series of memorized facts, rather than a way to look at the world which profoundly influences our understanding of the world.

So I propose that the disturbingly low knowledge of basic scientific facts, while truly disturbing, is far less so than the fact that most college graduates are not scientifically literate. I have met science majors who are not what one might identify as scientifically literate.  It is a sad fact.  Students are able to get a BsC without understanding how the scientific method works, without understanding how to conduct and/or critique an experiment or or a methodology.

What I am basically saying, and many have said this before me, is that our education system is failing our students.  Not because it isn’t teaching them anything, but it is teaching them easily forgettable facts.  If only our education system focused much more teaching students transferable skills, such as critical thinking. We might not have these problems if students left school not having memorized the periodic table or important physics formals, but rather if they left high school with the ability to think critically about science and about the world we live in, and better yet if students left if a profound curiosity to learn more about the natural world.


Been Busy

I wanted to write at least two blog posts a week when I started this.  I thought that it was a realistic goal.  It turns out that between working full time and finishing a graduate degree that even once a week has turned out to be difficult.  I am hoping to keep this going and I will hopefully have more time to put thought and time into this blog after I finish my degree.

I have had 3 major assignments due in the last week, and went to the Netspeed conference in Calgary.  Those things have kept me pretty busy.  I’ll come up with something interesting to post soon.  I promise.

Pedagogy and Classroom Design: Strange Bedfellows?

As I mentioned in my previous post, pedagogy has been at the forefront of my mind the past while. I want to post about a little brainstorm I have been having about the relationship between classroom design and pedagogy. It had never really occurred to me that architecture and the design of physical spaces would ever be influenced by or influence pedagogy. But it only takes a few seconds of thinking about this issue to realize they are inextricably linked.

The Traditional Lab

Spaces have meaning. Spaces tell us something about what is expected of us in that space. Think about the message sent by a traditional classroom. There are seats all facing the front, and there is a space for the teacher at the front of the class. This is a teacher centric model of classroom design and it sends a clear message. Forgive me for being blunt, but the message this traditional classroom sends is “sit down and shut up.” It is a listening space.

Technology has not improved the situation. The traditional teaching computer lab that most librarians teach in is the same thing. Rows of computers that all face the front where there is one projector. It is not a flexible space. It is created for a single purpose, lecturing with all eyes on the teacher. Try incorporating cooperative learning while teaching from a computer lab, and you will see how inflexible the space is. The teacher struggles to maneuver around the long rows, and students cannot really face each other and discuss things while still using the technology.

Collaborative Learning Spaces

So, even though I haven’t come to any firm answers, I have been thinking/reading about how we can design spaces that send the message of collaborative learning, that tell students to engage and discuss rather than sit and listen. I have seen some very cool solutions (although sadly most aren’t cheap).

taken from MacPhee, L. (2009). Learning spaces: A tutorial. Educause Quarterly, 32.

Pods are an interesting design as the students are all facing eachother and already formed into natural groups. This space sends the message that students should be working together. Unlike the traditional computer lab this space encourages collaboration, and allows the instructor to circulate and assist students with their collaborative efforts. But on the flip side this is not a very efficient use of space, and might meet resistance from an IT department that will want the lab to be used as a drop in lab when not booked for teaching.

Waves or curved desks are another way to organize a space as it forces at least 2 students to be facing each other. This too also isn’t a perfect solution but as it still forces the instructor to awkwardly slide between long curvy rows, but at least the design gives a collaborative message to students.

Flexible Spaces

Better solutions are more flexible such as the design of a computer lab at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse proved by Smith in an excellent article “Designing Collaborative Learning Experiences for Library Computer Classrooms.”

Smith, S. A., (2004). Designing Collaborative Learning Experiences for Library Computer Classrooms. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 11(2): 65-83.

LearnLab at Purdue

But the best solution I have seen so far is the LearnLab at Purdue university explained in Doan and Kirkwoods article “Strategically leveraging learning space to create partnership opportunities.”

Doan, T., & Kirkwood, H. (2011). Strategically leveraging learning space to create partnership opportunities. College & Undergraduate Libraries 18:239-24.

This space has no obvious front. It is not a lecture space, but rather specifically built as a collaborative learning space. This lab does not work well for lecturing, but sends a clear message to students that the teacher is not front and center but rather a facilitator of learning who is constantly circulating to assist in collaborative learning.

I apologize if this got a bit long or if my thoughts are not perfected on this topic. But these ideas have been floating around in my brain for a while and I wanted to get them down. I just really think that with so much talk about constructivist teaching philosophies and the importance of active and collaborative learning, we could do so much better in designing classrooms that encourage this sort of learning.

Confessions of a Converted Lecturer

I recently watched this video, which explains why students do not learn from lecturing at them in an attempt to dump information directly into their brains. He explains the importance of peer education. Anyone involved with education, or an interest in pedagogy should watch this video.

Pedagogy has been on the top of my mind the past few weeks since I started teaching information literacy sessions for my new job at Concordia University College of Alberta. With so many other responsibilities (the library’s websites and collections) it is has been hard to resist the temptation to just lecture. It’s so easy to prepare 45 minutes worth of material on searching, evaluating, and/or citing information. But I know that I never learned well that way, and I know it doesn’t work. I see the students eyes glazing over. This video helped to reminded what I have known for a long while. I need to start incorporating more active learning and cooperative learning into my information literacy sessions. I call myself a constructivist as far as teaching philosophy goes, and I need to start putting my money where my mouth is.

I should give credit where credit is due, I found this video on Dwayne Harapnuik’s blog, Dwayne is the VP academic of Concordia University College of Alberta.


I recently taught an information literacy instruction session using Prezi rather than MS PowerPoint.  PowerPoint is like an old friend.  No matter how long we spend apart, we are still close friends, and i still feel comfortable by him.  PowerPoint is an easy crutch, and though it’s ease of use could be debated, I am used to using it.  But in a world of new and emerging cloud based media tools, I figured it was time to step into the future and try Prezi for instruction. I found it fun, and at least a little bit more visually appealing than PowerPoint.  But like many tools there are a few advantages and disadvantages of Prezi that I would like to discuss. 

Positive (why use prezi)

  • Prezi is cloud-based (no more USB keys or emailed ppt files)
  • Prezi is free
  • Prezi is cool. This may seem like a tiny point, but in a world where students are constanly on social media and/or on their iphones and their professors are often in the dark ages, librarians need every tiny advantage we can get to show students that the should listen, even if that is a subtle message that we are up to date on modern technologies.
  • The element of surprise. This is related to the above point on getting that advantage or “wow” factor.  Give the students something different and they may pay attention (maybe).
  • Prezi is fun to use.  There are lots of cool features to play with including zooming and spinning effects.

Negative (why stick with PowerPoint)

  • You can’t send the file to student (how big of a disadvantage is a link just as good)
  • Students aren’t able to conveniently print slides
  • too many spinning effects have caused complaints of motion sickness in the past
  • a bit more difficult to use for images
  • The learning curve (yes it takes a while to learn how to properly build a “path” and connect elements)
  • More difficult to edit than a powerpoint.  Once you have built your path it takes a little effort to add a new element in the middle.  It isn’t as easy as clicking “new slide.”

Conclusion: Is Prezi right for you?

This depends on you, your audience, and the content of your presentation. If your presentation is image heavy or if you know your audience is more comfortable with slides and/or wants to print them out then there is nothing wrong with powerpoint.  I am still using PowerPoint for a session tomorrow.  If your audience is a bit younger and/or a bit more tech savvy then I would highly recommend trying out prezi.  It just might make preparing your next presentation a bit more fun. 

You can view my prezi here:

Feel free to let me know what you think.

The Myth of the Digital Native

Today’s episode of Spark on CBC had an interesting segment called the myth of the digital native (skip  to 40:00).

Basically, it explains what academic librarians and library and information science researchers have known for years.  Society has a myth that young people are “tech savvy” and know how to search because they are conformable using google. Yet students show a complete inability to think critically about search results, or ability to search effectively and efficiently.  Students do not understand subject terms or controlled vocabulary.  As a general rule students enter the first keyword or keyphrase that they think of and then click on the first few links.  Without understanding how search algorithms work.

This fact is sad, however, just as sad was the fact that this segment never once mentioned librarians.  Librarians have known about this for years.  We are the ones who help students search, and teach search skills.  This phenomenon has been researched (look up Gross & Latham).  Gros and Latham found that students have a false confidence in their search skills. For decades now, librarians have known about the lack of search skills (and just generally information literacy skills), and have been working to fix this.  Librarians (and LIS researchers) are the ones developing courses, one-off instruction sessions, and online tutorials/screencasts/webinars, and many other methods of teaching students information literacy skills (including search skills, as well as critical evaluation skills).

We need to be careful about the assumptions we make about college students and young people.  We assume they are tech savvy because they have an smartphone and an ipad or say that they know how to search.  Research shows that students almost only use google, and cannot critically evaluate information found online.  Students do not know how to find good credible resources for their assignments, and in their everyday lives.  Not only librarians, but also high school teachers and university instructors (and administrators) need to prioritize information literacy as a critical skill that young people need to develop, and do not have.

Unfortunately, these are not intuitive skills and must be learned, and learning requires a teacher, and quality teachers cost money.  It isn’t enough to prioritize with our mouths, administrators and government (education) officials need to prioritize information literacy/search skills with their budgets.

Ancient Lives: citizen science and Greek manuscripts

I am a nerd when it comes to Greek manuscripts. So I was excited when my wife sent me a link to zooniverse’s newest citizen science project “Ancient Lives.” The project is run by the University of Oxford, and they are looking for help transcribing the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

The Oxyrhynchus papyri are one of the largest archaeological discoveries of the past century. These papyri were found in what is basically a garbage dump. Hundreds of thousands of papyri fragments thrown away by Egyptians in (approximately) the 6th century AD are a treasure to modern researchers, and give us a vast amount of information about the ancient world. Included in the findings are many early christian text such as New and Old Testament manuscripts as well as apocryphal texts such and the Gospel of Thomas. Yet this discovery did not only have religious significance, there are many important mundane (or at least non-sacred) text ranging from manuscripts of Homer to ancient Egyptian financial record and loan contracts (an invaluable source to provide previously unknown insights into business and banking practices in the ancient world).

Yet although these papyri were discovered over a century ago currently only about 2% of them have been transcribed and made available to researchers. In an unprecedented appeal to the public, Oxford university has made over 400,000 papyri images available online and is asking armchair archeologists or even people who simply like word puzzles to help them in their effort to transcribe these important documents.

Here is how it works. Once you sign up for a zooniverse account and go to the Ancient Lives you simply click on “transcribe” and you will be given a piece of papyri, it could be tiny and have one letter, or a massive manuscript. Here is one I have been working on for a few days:

Then click on the greek letter right on the manuscript and then select one of the possible letters from the guide below. Eventually it will begin to look more like this:

The nice thing about this project is one does not necessarily need to know Greek, it is fun puzzle to solve just by matching characters (but knowing Greek words does help). The most exciting part of this project for me is getting access to and helping such an important project.

What Do Students Actually Want: A User-Centered Approach to Subject Guides

I have created a screencast of a presentation I have given at a conference, and several academic library’s professional development days. The mic might have been too close to my mouth so I may have to re-record the audio. But in the meantime, let me know what you think.

Exciting Announcement

I have been working hard back and forth with a copyeditor at University of Toronto Press to put the finishing touches on my paper entititled “Subject Guides in Academic Libraries: A User-Centred Study of Uses and Perceptions,” which will be published in the December issue of the Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science. You can read this pre-print pdf if you are interested. I presented this paper at the Canadian Association for Information Science, and it was ranked as one of the top abstracts submitted to that conference, and I was invited to publish in their journal.

This is quite exciting for me as it is my first sole author publication.

Advice for MLIS Students

Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started My MLIS

Like so many MLIS students, I started my second masters degree with the sort of naive optimism mostly found among first year undergrads.   I had never worked in a library before starting my degree, and assumed just getting the MLIS would make me instantly hire-able, and prestigious universities would be lined up around the block to offer me high paying positions. I soon learned that the field is highly competitive and there are not a ton of entry level jobs. I also realized that everyone applying has an MLIS and I needed to do something to stand out. But I was fortunate, and I did pretty well for myself. I am not claiming to be a guru in getting hired right out of school but I wanted to put down some advice because I think I have learned a little about making yourself hire-able that I hope would be helpful to pass on. I need to add two caveats though: 1) these are only things that have worked for me and may not necessarily work for you AND 2) I am an academic librarian and heavily weighted this towards academic librarianship it may not work for public libraries.

I. Work

  • If you haven’t worked in a library get a job. This should be priority #1
  • Work as much as you can and really build connections with librarians
  • Try to do many things at work
    • get some collections experience
    • work on the reference desk
    • ask to teach/co-teach a information literacy instruction session
    • volunteer to be on a committee

Basically all the different things you do at work are things you will be able to put on your resume and talk about in an interview. You are much more attractive to a potential employer if you have already done things that they expect you do in the job (i.e collections, instruction, reference etc…)

II. Network

This was probably the most difficult part for me, but also the most profitable when it came time to get a job. I am not a schmoozer, but networking isn’t just about walking up to librarians out of the blue and introducing yourself. Most library schools have programs set up to help with this. My library school had what is called “partners week,” which allows students to meet and shadow a librarian for an afternoon (I got a job at one of the places that I did a partners week). There are also practicums, and I know several people hired at the library where they did their practicum. I made it my policy to have worked at, or at least met someone from every academic library in the city. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you to meet librarians, you don’t need to give them your resume. Just chat with them. It might make a huge difference in the future if you are a face, and not another name at the top of a resume.

III. Research

Research is another great way to network. Although most people do not do research for networking purposes, it was a very effective way to meet librarians.  For myself, I was a research assistant for a professor, and was on a research team with the HR manager of a huge library system in my area.  In addition, I was able to meet librarians from across the country when presenting my research at various conferences.  And these are the two ways to get involved in research:

  1. Work as a research assistant
    • you will be on a research team
    • you might get to present at conferences
    • you might get your name on a publication
  2. Conduct your own research
    • You can really impress librarians who see your research at a conference
    • conferences are a great place to meet potential employers
    • publish your work: this looks good on a resume and shows a dedication to evidence based practice
    • try to pick a topic that is timely and relevant

IV. Volunteer

Volunteer for student council, the curriculum committee, or even a student club. All of this looks good on a resume.

V. School

School has proven to be the least important component to getting a job for me. Don’t take school too seriously. Very few (lets say no) jobs are going to ask for your transcript. I’ll put this bluntly: you grades don’t matter for anything other than scholarships. In fact, I recommend focusing on your coursework less, and focusing on work and research more as these have proven more profitable to me in the long run.

Having said that, I would attempt to take relevant courses. Don’t fill your schedule with children’s literature if you want to be an academic librarian (conversely don’t forget to take children’s literature if you want to be a children’s librarian). Get what you can out of school. Use it to fill gaps in your skill set. Make sure you get some technology skill such as web design, html, css, php etc… Many jobs, even entry level jobs expect new people to have technology skills and be able to jump right in on a website redesign project.

I hope you found this advice helpful. If not sorry, it’s jut what worked for me and I thought I’d share.