The World Wide Web as a Research Tool

               Last week I had the privilege of talking to three wonderful junior classes (two from Ms. Malbon and one from Ms. Sullivan) about using the web to do research for their school work. I wanted to remind them that using the Internet for research is not as easy as it seems, and that they need to remain critical thinkers when evaluating their sources.

              When I was in high school, the problem was that it was difficult to find reliable, useful resources for research. Anyone old enough to remember card catalogs, the print version of the reader’s guide to periodical literature, microfilm, microfiche, and twenty five cent copies (yes, copies cost more back then!) is right to complain that today’s students have it much easier when it comes to doing research.

              The problem for today’s students is that information is so easy to access and comes in such a stunning variety of packages that blur the line between “information” and “entertainment”. Take for example CNN.com, a site that I bookmark as a “reliable” source of information on a page of this blog. Of course, CNN is also a cable station that bills itself as a news outlet, but has many programs that are not news, but debate/show, and many hosts who are not doing journalism, but entertainment. Is a survey done on Twitter by Rick Sanchez a reliable source of information if it shows up on CNN.com? (Probably not in my class, but we can talk about that some other time).

              The point is that the web is loaded with all kinds of data and information available for students to use, but much of it is not appropriate for academic research. Typically, students begin their online search the same way that millions of others begin; at Google. They type in their keywords and hit search to find a good list of relevant sites that inevitably includes a Wikipedia entry somewhere in the top three hits. Most students have already been told by teachers of Wikipedia’s pitfalls, but it should not be completely discounted as a valuable research resource.

              I teach that we should use Wikipedia the same way we use any other encyclopedia in high school, as a starting point for our search. I discourage citing any Wikipedia entry as a primary source for the bibliography (a rule I have violated on this blog) because of the site’s open source nature, which leaves it vulnerable to misinformation, deliberate and otherwise. I also recommend that students refer to the bottom of the entry where the footnotes, external links and bibliography are listed for the article. A well researched article will include valuable primary source information, some of which may even be linked and freely available online.

              While using Wikipedia this way will improve your online search, once you get to a linked reference or article, you still have to evaluate the source, find the author and publishing date, and any other MLA information you will need to properly cite the article. This will also be true of any other hits that Google finds for your keywords. Rather than being mired by all of this work, students should learn to use subscription databases available to them through their public libraries and/or schools. One advantage that these services provide is that they include the bibliographic information (MLA and APA formats) for each of the resources, including audio and video sources.

              Having a Massachusetts public library card gives you access to some great digital databases one of which is Big Chalk’s E-Library. I introduced the students to E-Library and explained why searching on their database is different and better than surfing the web for info. (I’ll tell the readers more next time). Still, I saw some students back on Google after I was done talking, so I knew I hadn’t totally convinced everyone of my point. Besides, old habits are hard to break.

              I did remind students of one other interesting search engine named Clusty. Despite its funny name, Clusty is a powerful little tool that provides users with “feedback” not found on most search engines. Type a keyword into Clusty and you will get a list of relevant sites, similar to Google’s, even including the Wikipedia hit. The added value is that Clusty also narrows and expands your topic by suggesting related keywords and searches. Clusty seems to ask, “What is it about your topic you want to know? The history, origins, current controversy, important people related to it?”, and then finds relevant hits to those searches. Valuable information when you’re surfing the open ocean of the world wide web.

              Next post I’ll outline why subscription databases like E-Library are still better than just relying on the open Internet. For now though, I leave you with a short list of good places to find (mostly) reliable information.

  • ALA’s great Web sites for Kids: The American Library Association should know what sites are reliable and which aren’t. The recommendations on the ALAs site are all links to other resources hosted by independent organizations, some private and some public. A nice little extra that the ALA list provides is their rating for age appropriateness of the sites.
  • The Internet Public Library (IPL) : The IPL has been collecting reliable resources from the Internet since 1995; an eon in world wide web years. This non-profit organization is hosted by Drexel University and links users to a host of well researched, written and edited resources.
  • Spark Notes: The Cliff Notes of the Digital Age and everyone’s little secret. Pretending that students don’t use it is naïve and ignoring the information it provides is irresponsible for us as educators. Knowing that it’s out there is the first step to combating how easy it is to just read these notes instead of the books. I don’t judge it as either good or bad, it just is.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found something useful.

 Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.

Quick Hits: Interesting Stories

You know that I love a good story. While the tabloids are still talking about how dirty Tiger Woods and John Edwards are, and how awfully entertaining the immature and orange “kids” of Jersey Shore are, that’s not what I’m looking for. Scott Brown’s flash interested me for a Boston minute and I’m glad that KG is back for the Celts, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. I’m always looking for a story that makes me rethink what I thought I knew. Here’s a short list of my latest finds.

  • Kids Spend 10 hours daily on Electronic Media: I guess we all suspected that the kids were spending more time online and connected, but how much time is left for eating, bathing, socializing and homework. I wonder how much time we adults put in?
  • Ongoing Evolution May Explain Mysterious Rise In Diseases: This story is kind of depressing, and yet really fascinating. Basically, we’re this big fat petri dish for a bunch of smaller things that need a place to live, and we’ve been messing with the balance of things, while going about our business of trying to make our own lives better.
  • New Device Prints Human Skin: I take care of the copy room at our school, but I may have to upgrade my skills and certifications to work here.
  • Rice, alcohol and genes: Interesting post that discusses the connection between agriculture, alcohol and human evolution. Seems that fermentation may have produced our first energy drinks.
  • The Coldest Place in the Universe: In case you’re still worried that the Large Haldron Collider will eventually create a black hole somewhere on Earth, here’s a more local story that sounds like we could be creating Vonnegut’s ice nine in Massachusetts. Like it’s not cold enough here?

BONUS BLAST FROM THE PAST

Growing Up In the Universe: (5 part series): Clear out five hours to watch this 1991 television program featuring a much younger and milder Richard Dawkins presenting his marvelous argument for the grand view of the universe opened up to humans through science. I can’t believe this is available for FREE on the Internet … I wonder how much longer that will last?

Thanks for reading and I hope you find something worth checking out.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.

Some thoughts on MLK Day

              For most of us, the third Monday in January has become just another day off. Another day to sit around on Facebook, catch up on Twitter, clean up the house or get a great sale price on something else we don’t really need (do we have MLK Day sales yet?) Other holidays or days of remembrance have been equally diluted of meaning. Does anyone ever remember to pull out the Declaration of Independence to read at the 4th of July family barbecue? Why isn’t Veteran’s Day ever moved to a Monday, like other holidays, but must always be celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month?

              In a diverse and multi-ethnic society like we have here in the United States, national holidays are crucial to creating a unifying story for the people. Certainly almost everyone who is here knows why we celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, and why we gather around for a big meal with family in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. But other holidays, such as Columbus Day and even Christmas, have recently fallen into some controversy and disfavor, because our attitudes and demographics have changed.

              Columbus Day, in particular, has been scrutinized by social critics and political activists, and is countered in many Latin American countries and some Native and Mexican American communities with “Dia de la Raza”, the Day of the Race. This kind of social conflict is caused by the same thing that also constitutes our greatest strength; our diversity. But if it is left to fester and grow virulent, this kind of disharmony in our grand national consciousness can and will explode.

              Thus, holidays and national celebrations, especially for a secularized society like ours, take on greater importance. For there remains at the core of who we are, one unfortunate, irreconcilable truth. That we come from many backgrounds and start in differing circumstances and therefore, jump in at very dissimilar places in the story that is America. But just as we are many, we are expected to come together as one (E Pluribus Unum) and we can gain some understanding of what we revere as a country by looking at our national holidays.

              A quick survey of these days reveals that we value our freedom (4th of July), honor our soldiers (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) and prize our work (Labor Day). Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations tend to focus our attention on families and sharing of our good fortunes with others, so these holidays highlight our generosity and community. Presidents Day celebrates Washington’s birthday, though most people assume it also commemmorates Lincoln’s birth, and is a nod to a recognition of our own history, our admiration of great leaders, and an invitation to learn more about the United States.

              Then there is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, which we celebrate on the third Monday of every January. Today. And what are we supposed to be celebrating? Certainly it is a day to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to acknowledge his place in the history of our country. I’ve heard some media figures and national leaders, including President Obama, suggest that today be used as a day of service, which is a good place to start.

              But to me, there seems to be something missing in the way we honor Dr. King’s memory if we only offer our service or volunteer our efforts one day of the year. We also miss the point of Dr. King’s mission if we only remember him as a civil rights leader, for he was much more than that. Though the focus of his work concerned equal rights for Black Americans, Martin Luther King also fought for workers’ rights, labor unions and was an outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam. More importantly, throughout all of these struggles, Dr. King organized grass roots forces whose racial, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds represented every band of the spectrum.

              Perhaps this, then, is what we are celebrating today, not just the man. We are celebrating the power of the people, the will of the masses, and our ability to change course as a nation when we work together. Today is a day to acknowledge the many faces at every rally, boycott and march that is obscured in the background of every picture where MLK stands front and center. For without them, without us, without the people gathering in numbers to stand up for what is right, there would be no legacy to celebrate.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day and thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.

Speaking of science …

Welcome back and Happy 2010 … so,

               I was only thirteen years old when I first heard of Carl Sagan. He was an astronomy professor at Cornell University at the same time that my uncle was an undergraduate there, and that was enough to interest me in what he had to say. Sagan had a program called Cosmos on PBS in 1980, and while my friends were still talking about Star Wars, I was more interested in finding out how (and if) we would ever get out into the stars. I don’t remember all the particulars of the series, just that it was the first time that I began to doubt that we would ever get out of our puny little solar system. It was also the first time that I really considered, in mathematical terms, how vast the universe is, and how very small we all are.

               But that realization didn’t dishearten me. Instead, Sagan’s presentation about the universe and all its wonders was very uplifting and awe inspiring. This was before we had pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope or rovers on Mars mind you, and still Sagan’s knowledge and enthusiasm for cosmology instilled in me this deep seated and lifelong love for science. Since then, I have read many of Sagan’s books and also found that my deepest, most profound questions have answers that are rooted in what science has discovered.

               This, however, didn’t stop me from becoming an English teacher, since what I loved was reading, and not doing science necessarily. But as an English teacher, I realized that I couldn’t share with my students much of the great science writing that I was enjoying. I couldn’t replace Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or substitute an essay from Stephen Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb for Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”. I found myself struggling for reasons to bring in essays and articles by Stephen Hawkings, Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin, Roger Penrose, Daniel Dennett, and even the Amazing Randi.

               Needless to say, my new life as a librarian is very rewarding because I can share great writing and resources from areas other than “literature”. Now, with the ubiquity of audio and video, I can also recommend sites where people can stop in and listen to a lecture or discussion between some of the great minds of our time. Below you will find a few lectures, discussions and “debates” that I’ve been listening to recently. They are science related for the most part, and might not appeal to everyone, but I find it an amazing privilege to be able sit at my computer and be a fly on the wall while great minds discuss deep thoughts. (All videos come from YouTube, so you won’t be able to view them at school – thank you, filters.)

  • Carl Sagan – Intro to Cosmos: The great five minute introduction to the classic series that started me along the scientific journey. Though it may seem dated, it is not without its redeeming values, and remains a testament to Sagan’s ability to bring science to the masses. (Might be gone soon, since the poster doesn’t have copyrights to the vid)
  • Carl Sagan – God, the Universe, & Everything Else: A short video including Stephen Hawkings, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. If you’re not thrilled at the idea of seeing these three together, then you can forget about the other videos on this list … Go play Mafia Wars or find a lost black sheep at Farmville.
  • VS Ramachandran – The neurons that shaped civilization: From one of my favorite sites, TED Talks, this talk is less than eight minutes long, but is a fascinating discussion of recently discovered “mirror” neurons. These neurons, incidentally, have also been implicated in recent studies of Autism Spectrum Disorders including Asperger’s Syndrome.
  • Carl Sagan – The Pale Blue Dot: I’ve recommended this video before, and I have no reservations in repeating the recommendation. Sagan’s words are pure poetry, and when combined with haunting music and amazing images, his narrative becomes an eloquent plea for why we should care for each other and the Earth.
  • Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg: A great discussion between two giants in science; one a evolutionary biologist, the other a physicist. Don’t feel bad if you get lost during their conversation, just appreciate that you can sit in and listen. 
  • Andrea Ghez: The hunt for a supermassive black hole: According to TED Talks, this discussion deals “[w]ith new data from the Keck telescopes, Andrea Ghez shows how state-of-the-art adaptive optics are helping astronomers understand our universe’s most mysterious objects: black holes. She shares evidence that a supermassive black hole may be lurking at the center of the Milky Way. 
  • Lawrence Krauss discussion with Richard Dawkins: Two of the most vocal and eloquent proponents of Darwinism and evolution sit down and talk with amazing candor about the triumph of science over superstition and dark age mythologies. Enjoy.
  • Dr. Donald Prothero discusses Evolution: How We Know it Happened & Why it Matters: Another lecture in a long line of presentations available through YouTube that refute young Earth creationists and trumpet the importance of Darwin and his discoveries.
  • Richard Dawkins’ series, Waking Up in the Universe: Five talks presented as the Christmas Lectures in 1991, from Oxford University’s eminent professor. I wish I had these available to me when I was just a student in high school. Be sure to follow the links to see all five lectures.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope you find something interesting.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.