www use by students

John R. Porter porter at SHRSYS.HSLC.ORG
Tue Feb 18 14:35:40 EST 1997

Scott T. Meissner wrote:
> Scott Shumway askes about the educational uses by students of
> the internet.  I would also be interested in what has worked
> and what has not, and in what standards should be adopted for
> references.
> My impression is that if the source is a referreed journal then it
> can be cited.  But if not, then it should be treated as a personal
> letter and treated as a "personal communication."
> One use of the internet that I have found helpful is literature
> searching. 

I will address each of the above with my experiences.  I use the
Internet and search databases in three courses, with a planned fourth
usage.  In one course, cell biology, each student derives a topic for
further search from a recent journal article.  They then take that topic
through Medline (when appropriate), Biosis, CARL, and the WWW (Altavista
or Webcrawler or Yahoo).  They update that topic for a two-year period,
finding a specific number of articles (30-50) which are focused on the
topic, summarize some of these, and make conclusions about the "state of
the art."  They then find researchers in that field and electronically
communicate about current activity and hypotheses.  This is for senior
level biological, biochemical, and microbiological students and is a lot
of work, matched by a big portion of the course grade.  This has been
very successful in showing the students the power of computers in
literature acquisition and giving them a living contact with research
scientists outside their own institution.  I feel that the Internet and
e-mail takes away the argument that "we are only a small institution
with limited resources, so..." and puts students in contact with cutting
edge and current work.  To ignore the Internet as a resource is to
ignore that there will be future.  Yes, it is unrefereed and chaotic,
but it is also there.  The science community is using it and real data
is showing up in nearly real time.  One person who responded to a
student's e-mail query gave all of their recent data with
interpretations.  Very trusting but also very "science."  Unless you
begin to teach the students that not all information is created equal,
they will be slow to develop the filters necessary for proper analysis,
if they ever do at all.  It is very disturbing to me when folks say they
will serve as the filter of what is good or bad for their students.  We
don't live and teach in vacuums.  Teach the students to winnow, because
you won't be around when they are on the job.

In a different course on evolution, for sophomores, I have them prepare
a short term paper with information from lower-level journals/magazines,
books, and net sources.  Everything gets cited, regardless of the source
(there is more than "personal communications" available), with author,
year, title, and the bibliographic info (journal and pages; book,
publisher and pages; or URL) as appropriate.  Then, they illustrate the
term paper (only three or four pages long and three pictures) from
things found on the Internet.  This does not violate copyright since it
is a one-time, educational use and we tend to find the sites that say
"use these freely as long as you don't sell them."  Again, the students
learn a lot about what the Internet can provide (not just games and
chat) and learn a great deal about how to use the computer in reporting
the science.

The third usage is in a seminar course for biology seniors.  They find
literature on a topic of their interest and report it to the group along
with slides or overheads.  The main databases already mentioned by me
and others are used, and many have also used e-mail with researchers to
have specific questions answered, after they have taken cell biology (I
think the didactic jargon for this is "transfer").

The fourth usage is still in the developmental stage, designed for
freshmen, so I will reserve further discussion for later.

The Internet is an information source.  It deserves an introduction so
students will use it in a work context before they are required to in
their employment.  They also need practice in deciphering information
and weeding out the junk.  It is much better for them to begin to learn
this than to memorize the latest "hypothesis of the month," which will
be "wrong" by the time they are applying it.

Soapbox relinquished.
John R. Porter
j.porter at pcps.edu

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