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Science literacy: a collaborative approach.


Timely topics in microbiology were used to engage students in a non-science majors microbiology course designed to introduce the principles of biology and the role of microorganisms in nature and human affairs, as well as to develop an understanding of the scientific process. A learner-centered outcome-based library component for this class, based on the principles of teaching information literacy, was developed collaboratively by the microbiology professor and the science librarian, in order to compel students to think critically about information sources.


Science literacy should be an integral part of an undergraduate education. It is not just science majors who will determine science policy, but those who majored in business, communications, education, art, political science, or any other nonscientists who choose to participate in policy making. This paper describes an undergraduate microbiology class for non-science majors that uses the principles of teaching information literacy in a collaborative learning environment so that students become science literate.

The National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators highlight the lack of knowledge about science and technology or the scientific process among Americans (National Science Foundation, 2002). In 2001, for example, only about 50% of the people surveyed knew that it takes a year for the earth to revolve around the sun or that antibiotics do not kill viruses. The importance of science literacy, to make all people able to use scientific information to discuss and make decisions about issues involving science and technology, is emphasized in the National Science Education Standards for K-12 (National Research Council, 1996) and undergraduate education (National Research Council, 1999). Davis (2000) defines the world of scientists in terms of how they do research and communicate their results. He stresses the importance of the public's understanding of this world to help them understand science issues. The advent of the Internet and 24-hour news has increased the public's access to information. Concerns about the environment, health, and biotechnology appear daily in the news. In order to prepare students to make decisions about these issues for themselves and to influence public policy, all students, not just science majors, need a level of science literacy that will help them evaluate information for relevance and credibility.

Science literacy and information literacy are based on inquiry and critical thinking. Windschitl and Bettemer (2000) define science inquiry as a style of flaming questions, searching for answers, and connecting what is learned to what is already known. The authors describe the process as exploring to find the right questions, probing for answers, and defending the answers to others. Carol Kuhlthau (1993) and Sonia Bodi (2002) write about research as a process and the importance of questions in developing information literacy. Asking questions about a topic leads to reflection and critical thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries' (ACRL) (2003) information literacy standards for higher education define information literacy as knowing of how to look for, evaluate, and use information. Laherty (2000) compared the National Science Education Content Standards with the ACRL Standards and found these commonalities: learning in the context of inquiry, the emphasis on learning as a process, and the finding, understanding, and using information to answer questions, which suggests that the principles of teaching information literacy should apply to teaching science literacy. Assessment of student learning is an essential tool to help faculty, as well as students, reflect on the learning that takes place in their classes. Faculty can use assessment to make changes in their classes in order to align what they are teaching with what students are learning (Angelo & Cross, 1993). The importance of reflection and feedback aligned with content in measuring what students are learning is emphasized in a National Academy of Sciences report, Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment (Marshall, Scheppler, and Palmisano, 2001). Information Literacy Best Practices suggest that assessment should include the process, as well as the product, and should occur throughout a course (Hunt & Birks, 2004).

The professor designed the class as an introductory biology course for non-science majors to teach them the basic principles of biology and to give them knowledge of how the scientific process works, as well as knowledge of microbiology. The number of microbiology-related issues that appear in the news make the topics more compelling to the students. The library component of this class was designed not only to help students find information for their assigned class presentations, but also to equip them with the knowledge to find and evaluate the wide range of information available about science topics in order to make informed judgments on other science issues. The two microbiology classes, taught in consecutive years, consisted of 19 and 27 non-science majors who ranged from first-year to fourth-year students.


Class Assignments

The students, in groups of four to five, are required to research and prepare a class presentation on topics selected by the professor for their timeliness and relevance to microbiology. The most recent topics were anthrax, smallpox, vaccine safety, antibiotic resistance, emerging infectious diseases, and food safety. The students, as a group, generate an annotated bibliography of 10-12 references from a variety of sources to provide background information for presentations. Each group is given a number of questions to help guide their research. Students are required to make recommendations about their topics based on their research. The sources for their bibliographies are limited by type and timeliness. Sources such as general news or science news articles, web pages, books, and encyclopedias are limited to two of each type so that students will focus on scholarly articles, which are the only sources not limited in number. Two of the scholarly articles have to be primary. Articles have to be published within the last three years, but books and encyclopedias can be up to five years old. Annotations are specified in the assignment so that students do not have to simply summarize the information in the sources, but evaluate the credibility and relevance of each source for their presentations.

Library Session

A learner-centered outcome-based library session of 75 minutes was designed to give students background on how to develop a research strategy, what types of sources are available, how to find, and then evaluate information. The sessions are given after the topic assignments are made, but prior to the development of their bibliographies. Student activities and outcome assessments are based on five questions (Gilchrist, 2004):

1. what do you want the students to be able to do?

2. what do the students need to know in order to do this well?

3. how will you teach these concepts?

4. how will the students demonstrate the learning?

5. how will I know the students have done this well?

First, students should be able to ask questions and to recognize that these questions are the beginning of the research process. They also should be able to find credible and relevant information on their topic and integrate the information into a class presentation that includes a recommendation. Second, students need to know how to ask questions, generate keywords, and determine where to look for information on their topics. Students also need to know how to find answers to their questions on their topics, to differentiate between popular/scholarly and primary/secondary sources, to evaluate web pages, and to prepare an annotated bibliography of their sources. Third, central to teaching the concepts, is a class research web page with suggested resources including examples of web pages and annotated bibliographies. The library session includes small group activities including a discussion of a variety of sources on the topics and a web page evaluation exercise. Students are also given individual library assignments including a research strategy worksheet that helps students find, evaluate, and cite a popular and a scholarly article. Fourth, the students will demonstrate their learning through their increasing awareness of types of sources in the library class discussion, through the small group and individual library assignments, and in their annotated bibliographies and presentations. Finally, students will have done this well when they fulfill the criteria established prior to the library session for the library assignments and they have the required types of sources in their bibliographies, as well as an evaluation of each source. They will also demonstrate an understanding of the information by giving an informed presentation and recommendation. The 75-minute library session where students learn the concepts outlined for question three above contains five components.

1. Students in their groups evaluate print books and articles related to their topics written by nonscientists, by scientists for non-scientists, and scientists for their peers and report their findings to the whole class. This is designed to help students understand how scientists communicate and how it is different from nonscientists writing about science. Students consider the format of a scholarly book and a primary scholarly article and discuss the peer-review process of publishing a scientific article.

2. The librarian, professor, and students review a research web page, created by the librarian (McCulley, 2004), which includes information about where to find and how to evaluate information in print and on the web. Students are given a handout of examples of Council of Biology Editors (CBE) style citations to follow and references to style manuals in print and online.

3. Each of the groups evaluates two web pages on their topic according to specific criteria in order to learn techniques to quickly evaluate a web page for credibility and relevance. Their evaluation sheets are turned in at the end of class. The evaluation worksheet provides questions regarding authority and accuracy, advocacy and objectivity, and currency and coverage, to consider as students evaluate not only content, but also credibility of web pages (Grassian, 2000). The final question for consideration is, would you use this web site as a source on which to base your recommendation about your topic? Why or why not? The criteria for the evaluation of authority and accuracy of the assigned web pages include identifying the domain of the page and stating why it might be important to its credibility; taking at least two steps to identify and determine the credibility of the author, such as using the information in the URL, looking at the "about us" link, or doing a Google search on the name; and looking for references or contact information. Advocacy and objectivity is evaluated by stating the purpose of the page, establishing any possible bias, and stating whether or not the page is supported by advertising. The currency and coverage of the page is determined by finding the latest date on the page or an update date and mentioning whether or not there are any useful and evaluated links on the page. The final question, would you use this page to make a recommendation on your topic, should be answered and supported with at least one reason.

4. Each student is also given an assignment to develop a research strategy and to select a popular and a scholarly article to evaluate in preparation for finding sources for the groups' bibliographies. The research strategy is developed through a series of questions, beginning with, state your topic as a question, designed to have students identify keywords for searching and to think about what they already know and what they want to know about their topics. They answer questions about why their article is popular or scholarly and give at least three reasons to support their answer, give at least three reasons why their scholarly article is more credible, as well as giving at least one reason why the scholarly article might not be useful and at least one way they could use the popular article for their presentations. Through selecting their two articles, students gain experience finding and distinguishing among popular/scholarly and primary/secondary sources. The assignment, due one week after the library session, is graded by the librarian and returned three to four weeks prior to the due date for the annotated bibliographies. The assessment of this assignment is based on the students' ability to find and identify a popular and scholarly article and the completeness and accuracy with which students answer the questions and support their answers. This assignment gives students experience searching for and evaluating sources independently before working with their group. It is stated in the professor's syllabus that the library assignments are required and will be a part of the students' final grade in the course.

5. At the end of the library session, students are asked to write the most important thing they learned on one side of a 3x5 card and one thing they are still confused about on the other side. This gives students a chance to reflect on the class and is a quick way to assess what each student thought was most important. The questions give the librarian an indication of how well the concepts were covered. Responses to the questions are e-mailed to the class.

Faculty Librarian Collaboration

Faculty and librarian collaboration has been essential to the development and progress of this class. The professor and the librarian have several conversations prior, during, and after the class regarding topics and the class research page, assessment of student progress through the library assignments and the bibliographies, and the evaluation of the presentations. These conversations allowed the microbiologist and science librarian to reflect on the overall learning outcome of finding and using more relevant and credible sources, an essential component of science literacy. A timeline of the course activities and assessments for future classes has been developed through the collaborative assessment of the first two classes. See issue

During week one the assignment and class web page are presented. In week two the students are assigned to groups to research one of six current microbiology topics. The library session is during the third week. The professor attends this session so the students get his perspective, as well as the librarian's during the discussions. Assessment by the librarian during the third week includes the review of the web evaluation worksheets that are returned to the students and e-mails to the class with answers to questions from the 3x5 cards, as well as the review of the most important things learned. Students complete the search strategy and article identification worksheet during week four. The worksheets are assessed by the librarian and returned to the students with detailed feedback. During weeks five through seven students work individually on their draft annotated bibliography of at least ten sources. The librarian continues to respond to questions during this period. Class questions give a sense of how students are doing. The annotated bibliographies are due during week eight. They are reviewed by the professor and the librarian, using the previously established criteria. Students begin meeting in groups to pool their sources and to prepare their presentations by week ten. Their draft bibliographies are returned with feedback. The final drafts of the bibliographies are turned in during week twelve. They are graded by the librarian and professor and returned to the students prior to their 25-minute power point presentations during week thirteen. Each group prepares a handout for the class including an outline and a list of references. The students, professor, and the librarian evaluate the presentations and the handouts.


Library Instruction Session The initial group discussions regarding books and articles provided the opportunity for students to begin thinking about different types of science information sources. The group reports to the whole class provided a forum to discuss the process of publishing a peer-reviewed scientific paper and the significance of these publications. The two library assignments, web page evaluation and developing a research strategy to find a popular and scholarly article, gave the librarian the opportunity to provide individual feedback to the students and to provide the scaffolding to enable them to select and cite sources for their bibliographies. The 3x5 cards provided a quick chance to reflect on learning at the end of the library session. In the first class, 57% of the students listed the library resources, especially the class web page and the article databases, as the most important thing they learned. Thirty six per cent listed how to determine credibility of sources as most valuable. This included differentiating scholarly and popular articles and web page evaluation. One student said the most important thing learned was that research takes time. In the second class the most important thing learned was divided equally between the information about available resources and how to evaluate sources including distinguishing between popular and scholarly articles.

Annotated Bibliographies The annotated bibliographies suggested that students are able to think critically about scientific information and to select credible sources on their topics. There was a 30% increase in the number of students able to select the required two primary scholarly sources the second year. More significantly, there was a 75% increase in the number of students selecting scholarly sources for at least half of their sources the second year. The second year's students all limited their web page resources to two credible sources and all had evaluative annotations, not abstracts. See website

Presentations The presentations were of similar quality for both classes with the exception that all the groups the second year, regardless of the strength of their presentations, included recommendations about their topics. The professor emphasized the importance of the recommendation as part of the presentation the second year because not all the groups included them the first year. There also appeared to be marked differences in the involvement of the students within the groups in both classes. The first year's class was not required to include a bibliography in their handouts for their presentations. However, many of the six groups in the second class, in which bibliographies were required, handed out a reference list with all or nearly all web sites for their sources. They left out all or most of the books and articles that had been on their annotated bibliographies. When asked why they had used only web sites for this, one of the students responded that these sources were easier to find, were more general, and that the web is where most of the information is these days.


The specific goal of the collaboration between the microbiology professor and the science librarian is to guide students to find credible information about topics in microbiology; to think critically about the information they find; and to select, use, and cite information to make recommendations about their topics. The broader goal is to motivate non-science majors to learn how and where to find credible information on topics in science, to think critically about any sources they find, so they can use the information to make informed decisions that may affect themselves and others throughout their lives. The responses to questions on the library worksheets and the selection and evaluation of sources chosen for the annotated bibliographies suggest that students are not only thinking about the content, but also the credibility of their sources. They may not always get it right, but they are at least considering it. The use of timely topics not only motivates the students but also provides them with a variety of information sources to use in their presentations.

Web page evaluation will continue to be an integral part of the library session. It is critical that students recognize that there are other sources for information than the Internet. However, when they choose the Internet they need to be aware of criteria to determine credibility. Web-based resources have greatly increased access to information, but have made evaluation much more complex. The student's comments about the Internet being easier to use and that is where things are these days, reflect that of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy Internet Report (2003) regarding the importance and credibility of the Internet as a source of information. In 2002, 60.5% of Internet users considered it to be a very important or extremely important source of information and 50.6% of the users ranked most of the information reliable and accurate. Assessment by both the professor and the librarian of the bibliographies and the presentations is the basis for changes for the next class. The changes that were made after the assessment of the first year's class were designed to clarify the assignments to the students and to give them more background information. These changes included highlighting the recommendation as part of the presentation, adding a link to a definition and example of an annotated bibliography to the class research web page and stressing that the evaluative component was a critical part of the annotation. These changes may have given the second year's students the background necessary to write annotations instead of abstracts. The earlier due date for annotated bibliographies gives students feedback from the professor and the librarian regarding their sources and citation style and make revisions before their presentations.

Assessment of the second year's class led to more revisions. Although the types of sources and the students' awareness of their credibility improved the second year, sharing the group responsibilities for the presentation and the connection between the bibliographies and the value of those sources for information and recommendations used in the presentations needs to be improved. Next time each student will do not only the search strategy and article library worksheet, but also will hand in a preliminary annotated bibliography that the group will use to compile a group bibliography for their presentations. The timeline of the course activities and assessments for future classes includes this modification. This should strengthen the connection between the bibliographies as sources for the presentations as well as bring each student to the group with some knowledge of the topic and the research process. Individual bibliographies will give the professor and the librarian a better measure of each student's progress during the course. Students could also be assigned individual responsibilities within their groups for sources on specific aspects of their topics. The concept of expert group roles worked well in the cooperative learning groups reported by Trempy, Skinner, and Seibold (2002) and will be considered for this class, as well. The responsibility of individual students for specific areas of their topics could reduce the number of sources required for each student and decrease the time spent reviewing each bibliography and each revision by the professor and librarian. It is essential to give students detailed feedback in order for them to increase their knowledge about sources and this takes a great deal of time.

A student evaluation at the end of the semester might be used to assess how the students perceive their knowledge of current microbiology issues and their awareness of how to evaluate science sources has changed from the beginning of the semester. A more objective measure could be to assess what the students know at the beginning of class and at the end of class. The assignments do assess what the students know after instruction, but do not provide information about where they started. An assessment at the beginning of the semester would allow the instruction to be customized to the needs of each class. Most of the students in these classes demonstrated in their bibliographies that they could distinguish a popular from a scholarly source. They had more difficulty differentiating between a primary and a secondary scholarly source. The bibliographies from the second year had more scholarly sources overall, but only four of the six groups had the required two primary scholarly sources. All the groups would have met the requirement of two scholarly sources if they could have used either primary or secondary sources.


The application of information literacy concepts appears to be a successful method of teaching science literacy. The continuous cycle of assessment and feedback to the students during the class and assessment and changes to the class through the collaboration of the professor and the librarian will continue to improve the science literacy level of non-science majors.


We would like to thank Linfield College for its support of information literacy efforts and especially Susan Barnes Whyte for her encouragement of this collaboration.


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Davis, B. D. (2000). The scientist's world. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 64.1:1-12.

Gilchrist, D. (2003 July 15-18). Pacific northwest information literacy institute workshop. Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.

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McCulley, C. (2004). Linfield College libraries class research Page BIO 106 Microbes & Man. Retrieved Dec 21,2004 from, National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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Pellegrino, J. W., Chudowsky, N., and Glaser, R. (Eds.). (2001). Knowing what students know: the science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Trempy, J. E., Skinner, M. M., and Siebold, W. A. (2002). Learning microbiology through cooperation: designing cooperative learning activities that promote interdependence, interaction, and accountability. Microbiology Education 3.1:26-36.

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Carol McCulley, Linfield College

John Hare, Linfield College

McCulley, MS & MLS is the Science Librarian and Hare, PhD is Professor of Biology
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Author:Hare, John
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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