Infrastructure

Finding Online Science Sources

By Sean Cavanagh — January 23, 2008 3 min read

Whether they’re seeking to polish teaching skills, strengthen their shaky grasp of a topic, or transform a tedious classroom lesson into a lively one, science educators are turning to the Web for a variety of needs that can’t be met as easily through conferences, textbooks, and other means.

Online sites offer curricula, lesson plans, and hands-on activities, sorted by science topic and grade level, in written form and through audio, video, and interactive lessons. In fact, the biggest challenge for many teachers isn’t simply finding scientific information online, but picking out reliable and useful information amid more suspect material.

“Content is no longer scarce, and that’s a huge thing that’s taken place through the Internet,” says Kaye Howe, the director of the National Science Digital Library, an online provider of science, mathematics, technology, and engineering information for educators and others that estimates it draws 4 million visitors a year. “Access used to be difficult, and that’s no longer the case.”

One of the most popular sites is the National Science Digital Libray. The library, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency with headquarters in Arlington, Va., houses an estimated 2.5 million teaching and learning resources.

When K-12 and college educators and others search under a specific topic on the NSDL, the library spits out a more narrowly focused set of hits than users would receive through a general search engine, officials of the digital library say.

One popular NSDL tool is “Pathways,” a series of Web links, arranged by the library in cooperation with outside organizations, which offer specialized information grouped by topic, grade level, or some other designation. Available pathways include those for biological sciences, chemistry, multimedia resources, and computer sciences.

NSDL officials, who review material before it is put online, will sometimes remove content if it is outdated or otherwise inappropriate, Howe says. A majority of resources on the site, at http://nsdl.org, are free, though access to some links may come with a cost.

Over the past few years, the National Science Teachers Association has made efforts to expand the science content and professional-development resources it provides online. That goal is an acknowledgment that the Web offers a more effective way of providing help to large numbers of teachers than in-person workshops and seminars, says NSTA Executive Director Gerald F. Wheeler.

Two of the most popular online NSTA resources, he says, are “SciLinks,” which offers teachers connections between textbook topics and NSTA-approved Web resources, and “SciGuides,” a collection of Web lesson plans, activities, and other resources, organized by topic, aligned to prominent national science education standards. The NSTA site, at www.nsta.org, also offers journal articles and book chapters, some free and others at a cost.

The NSTA, which has 55,000 members, is moving to consolidate that information and its other online resources for teachers into a single site called its Learning Center.

Many Web sites offer multimedia resources— such as video, audio, and interactive tools—to show science in action and demonstrate in-class activities. One such site is Teachers’ Domain, at www.teachersdomain.org, developed by WGBH, a Boston public-television and -radio station that produces programs in education and other areas.

Visitors can choose from science topics and subtopics. Each link provides a short background scientific essay, a series of discussion questions for students, and videos.

One such link, on the science of tsunamis, has teachers and students click on various points on a map of the Indian Ocean, the site of the devastating 2004 tsunami. They can access visual presentations on the height of the tsunami’s waves, the way they raced across the ocean at “near jetliner speed,” and the science of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that caused the event.

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Sean Cavanagh, an assistant editor for Education Week, covers science and math education.

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