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Digital Science Library Developers Gather at AAAS to Ponder the Future
The emergence of the Internet over the last decade as an everyday data and communication tool has created enormous possibilities in science education, but also some inefficiencies, distractions and practical challenges. If you doubt it, go to your favorite Internet search engine and type in s-u-n.
What do you get? Stock tables, a corporate site, a newspaper and, oh yes, the star that is the center of our solar system. Or type in v-e-n-u-s. What then? Not just the second planet from the sun, but a line of women's clothing and a site focused on the Roman goddess of love and beauty.
But for the past 11 years, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and a corps of visionaries funded by NSF have been building a library that uses the Internet as a foundation of an effective, efficient tool of 21st century science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. It's called the National Science Digital Library (go to your search in and type in n-s-d-l. From 18-20 October, nearly 200 of the top thinkers and developers of the library—including representatives from industry, major universities and government—gathered at AAAS in Washington, D.C., to consider the library's future challenges and evolution during its annual meeting.
"You know all the reports that are out now about the conditions of the STEM disciplines in the United States and how few kids are going into them, the whole pipeline issue," Kaye Howe, executive director of NSDL Core Integration, said in an interview. "We would really like to be part of the solution on this, both by creating a community and by giving that community the material, the tools and services it needs in order to master these very important areas that are sometimes difficult to master."
Aside from providing services to the average science classroom, Howe said, the NSDL might be crucial in providing education support in poor states where textbooks are in short supply, or in areas like New Orleans where schools have been devastated by natural disasters. And, she said, it might provide a critical connection to science for a student who is otherwise bored and inclined to drift away from STEM fields.
"AAAS is involved with the NSDL because of its mission related to science literacy for all and increasing public understanding of science," said Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "Also, the NSDL provides an opportunity for AAAS to work with its affiliated organizations to strengthen teaching and learning in the biological sciences, particularly in postsecondary institutions. The NSDL is a cost-effective strategy to foster inquiry-based learning in the biological sciences for non-majors and majors."
The National Science Digital Library was conceived in late 1995, just as the Internet was emerging as a cutting-edge resource in classrooms, homes and offices. It's goal was to create a resource with the ambition of the Library of Congress, said Linda Akli, a senior program associate at AAAS and one of the organizers of this year's NSDL annual meeting. It would be a constantly evolving and regularly updated tool for students at every level.
Before the Internet, a library was evaluated in part on the number of volumes on its shelves, Howe said. But "with the Internet and the growth of information and the access to information on the Internet, material itself was no longer scarce. What did begin to happen very quickly was that finding that material and finding material that you could trust, and use—that really became the great exercise."
Since the NSDL's founding, NSF has funded over 200 different projects as part of the library; among them is the AAAS-managed BiosciEdNet (BEN) portal, which offers over 4,500 reviewed resources covering 77 biological sciences topics.
Today, the NSDL works like a smarter, more discerning version of Google. Type in Venus and you get nearly 2,000 resources about the every aspect of Earth's neighboring planet, all carefully reviewed by experts, suitable for students and teachers at various levels from kindergarten through undergraduate studies.
But behind that seemingly simple service is an ambitious and often esoteric philosophy and stream of interests that is building a futuristic science of collecting, storing and distributing data.
Daniel E. Atkins
In a town hall event that opened the NSDL Annual Meeting at AAAS, Daniel E. Atkins, director of the NSF's Office of Cyberinfrastructure, offered a detailed view of "virtual organizations," which today include co-laboratories, grids, networks, portals, gateways, hubs and virtual research environments. NSF's vision of cyberinfrastructure (CI) requires synergy between three types of activities: creating the cyberinfrastructure; doing research and development "to chance technical and social effectiveness of future CI environments"; and transforming and applying those lessons to make the cyberinfrastructure still more effective.
In the long run, Atkins said, NSDL and other virtual organizations can help broaden participation in STEM education and professions. They can help "exploit the new opportunities that cyber-infrastructure brings for ... people who, because of physical capabilities, location, or history, have been excluded from the frontiers of scientific and
engineering research and education," he said. [To see Atkins' PowerPoint presentation, click here.
For the developers of the National Science Digital Library, Howe said, building such a multi-dimensional virtual organization requires extensive study into how to gather information, how to assemble it in the most useful and efficient way, and how to get the information to diverse potential audiences. Each of those is a realm of research unto itself.
"In the beginning, and this was pre-Google, we thought, 'Great, we've got all this great stuff and people can search for it—we've done our task,'" Howe said. But increasingly the developers were gleaning insights from library science. "The arrangement of information—how to get access to it, and how to arrange it in ways that don't undercut its integrity, and make it discoverable in ways that are helpful...these have been a great part of our evolution."
From this process of constant evaluation and re-evaluation, NSF and the NSDL have developed a system of "pathways," which can be seen as a collaborative administration centers which oversee the collection, management and organization of the material.
The BEN Collaborative is a good example. It was founded in 1999 by AAAS with 11 other professional societies and coalitions; it has since grown to 25 collaborators. Educational e-resources from all the collaborators are aggregated into a one-stop, searchable catalog at the BEN portal. In 2005, BEN was awarded a four-year, $2.8 million NSF grant that would allow it to increase its collection to more than 27,000 scientific papers, illustrations, images, lab exercises and other materials deemed helpful for teachers in the biological sciences.
"BEN resources can help educators to engage student interest, shorten lesson-preparation time, provide concept updates, and develop curricula that are in line with national standards for content, use of animals and humans, and student safety," said George. "The BEN Collaborative's overall mission is not only to provide seamless access to e-resources, but also to serve as a catalyst for strengthening teaching and learning in the biological sciences."
Howe shares that vision and takes it a step further. For students interested in biology, she said, the NSDL wants to make clear that information from other disciplines is pertinent, too. "You may be interested in biology," she explained, "but if you're interested in biology, physics will have an impact on that, and so will chemistry, and so will mathematics, and so will engineering.
"Inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary...that's the direction these libraries are going in—a community of people who want to know things and want to know them in patterns that replicate the true nature of that information."
Edward W. Lempinen
27 November 2006