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Super STEM sources.

Google and Google-like search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, and Ask.com dominate web search with, collectively, more than 95% of the market share. There are of course hundreds (or maybe thousands) of search engines, but most are highly specific and cover some narrow content set. Google is very good, but it's not the only way to look at the web, and that's why broadly comprehensive search engines that do not work like Google are valuable.

Thus, I was dismayed to discover the abrupt removal of Elsevier's SciVerse Hub, especially its public web search component, Scirus. SciVerse Hub searched large bodies of proprietary Elsevier content, but these could be bypassed in favor of Scirus searches alone. Scirus' primary focus was on STEM content, but it did reach widely into other disciplines and thereby had the character of a general search engine. It returned large amounts of valuable information that Google did not and had powerful search options for focusing by subject, content type, and date, etc.

This leads to a look at two other search engines--Science.gov and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL; nsdl.org)--that bear significant and valuable resemblances to Scirus. They concentrate on STEM content, but also extend into other subjects. Most of their results are public domain or open educational resources (OERs). They have good search and browse features. And--best of all--they are genuine Google alternatives that will bring back good stuff that Google will not.

Science.gov

Science.gov describes itself as "a gateway to government science information and research results." It is the product of the Science.gov Alliance, a partnership of 19 U.S. government science organizations within 15 federal agencies. These include many of the nation's largest and most important content generators, such as the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, and education, as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Library of Congress, and others. It was launched in 2002 and since then has had several major upgrades in content and search capabilities. (Science.gov is distinct from USA.gov, the comprehensive government content search engine. Read on for more comparison.)

There are two major components to Science.gov: a core collection of STEM databases and a search function for thousands of websites from the Science.gov Alliance members. The core collection comprises 64 STEM databases from the 15 federal agencies, including major sources such as AGRICOLA, ERIC, NTIS Bibliographic Database, PubMed, and THOMAS. This is a STEM-oriented aggregation on a grand scale, covering every STEM field, but also including non-STEM sources such as ERIC. Most of the content is text, but there are several small image and video collections. Many of the records are bibliographic--such as from the big indexes of MEDLINE and NTIS--but there is also substantial full-text content.

In addition to operating these big databases, the Science.gov Alliance partners maintain more than 2,200 websites. These are often valuable for providing student- and general public-level material, as opposed to the highly technical content in the big indexes and datasets.

Using Science.gov

Science.gov has a basic search that goes across the entire collection, and it offers an advanced search that allows limiting by title, author, date, subject, and database. Both searches have two stages: Results from the core databases are displayed first; then the user has the option to add in results from the website search. Results are displayed in relevance order, with sorting also by title, date, or author. A results set can be further limited by subtopic, author, date, and format, and a follow-up search can be run against the initial results set. There is also a visual results display, with concentric circles representing categories and subcategories of the search results.

Science.gov's big achievement is that it's a genuine and valuable STEM content alternative not only to Google, but also to USA.gov and Google Scholar. USA.gov differs from Science.gov in three major ways: It covers all subjects, includes content from state and municipal governments, and generally retrieves a higher proportion of student- and general public-level material. My test searches showed very little overlap between Science.gov and either USA.gov or Google Scholar.

However, Science.gov can't be approached with the casual ignorance that precedes many a Google search. Searchers, whether experts or not, need to know at least a little about Science.gov's content and organization to use it effectively.

Nonexperts can be deterred by the highly technical level of many Science.gov search results, as well as by the difficulty of obtaining citation-only items. (Science.gov does not allow limiting by level or full-text availability.) These users would benefit from getting familiar with individual databases that would be more welcoming. They can also restrict searches to the website collection. Experts will value Science.gov as a broad STEM scanning tool, especially out of discipline. Within their disciplines, however, using discipline-specific databases directly will allow precise search options that Science.gov lacks.

National Science Digital Library

NSDL is in Science.gov, but its stand-alone value for science research deserves individual mention. NSDL is managed by the University Corp. for Atmospheric Research, with funding from the NSF. NSDL functions as a clearinghouse/curator for digital STEM content produced by more than 120 organizations, including educational institutions, science organizations, and museums. Its mission is to provide "high quality online educational resources for teaching and learning" in STEM fields. "Teaching and learning" represent NSDL's two basic audiences: STEM educators at all levels and anyone who is seeking STEM information.

The NSDL database includes more than 100,000 records, covering the entire STEM range and offering thousands of items from social sciences, history, law, and public policy. There are several kinds of content, including reference sources, books, audiovisual items, and a variety of instructional materials. The content spans every educational level, from pre-K to higher education. Most items are usable under OER principles.

Using NSDL

NSDL is exceptionally well-organized and -curated. Each record has an item title, annotation, provider, and link to the item on the provider's site. Items are cataloged by Subject, Resource type, and Education level. The Subject classification has 14 broad STEM categories. The Resource type and Education level classifications are more granular, thereby contributing greatly to NSDL's utility. Resource type indicates both format (book, audiovisual, and dataset, etc.) and application (assessment, instructional, and reference material, etc.). This classification is highly useful in separating material that is designed specifically for instructional purposes, such as lesson plans and instructors' manuals, from material of general STEM interest. The Education level classification is also finely graded, with categories for individual K-12 grades, lower- and upper-division undergraduates, and graduates/professionals. A Vocational/Professional Development category describes materials created for use outside of the formal educational structure. There is an Informal Education category, which indicates material of broad general interest.

The collection can be searched by keyword, subject, resource type, or education level. Results are sorted by relevance. The classification system makes it easy to explore different types and levels of material, whether by an educator who is seeking specific instructional tools or anyone who is seeking high-quality STEM information for any age or literacy level.

NSDL has two other tools of specific interest to educators. Science Literacy Maps are detailed graphic presentations of the relationships of STEM concepts, with links at each topic node to corresponding NSDL items. The Standards tool links NSDL items to nine educational standards, including Common Core Math and English Language Arts.

Science.gov and National Science Digital Library

SYNOPSIS

Science.gov and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) provide access to an immense variety of STEM resources, from highly technical research reports to pre-K instructional materials. Science.gov indexes dozens of databases and thousands of websites from 15 major federal data-generating agencies. NSDL lists thousands of STEM materials for both educators and general-public STEM-information seekers. Science.gov and NSDL are highly valuable alternatives to other commonly used STEM search tools: Google, Google Scholar, and USA.gov.

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Md. Send your comments about this column to itletters@infotoday.com.
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Title Annotation:science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
Author:O'Leary, Mick
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
Words:1354
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