Integrating Bibliographic Software, Database Searching, and Molecular Modeling in an Introductory Biology Course: A Collaboration between the Biology Department and the Science Librarian

Article excerpt


Librarians instruct students where to find information, but rarely demonstrate its management, while faculty have difficulty incorporating real-time laboratory experience with library research. This paper focuses on the development of a hands-on biology laboratory experiment in an introductory course that integrates bibliographic software into the lab. The pedagogical and technical issues involved are discussed.

There is very little documented evidence of the successful implementation of bibliographic software into undergraduate coursework. Though there are a few examples at the graduate level (Harrison 2005), undergraduates are rarely exposed to the power of this technology.

Biology 125 is an introductory cell biology and genetics class taught in the fall semester at St. Olaf College. It is the first course for biology majors but many nonmajors take the class, as well, including psychology, nursing, and sports science majors. The lab component of the class, which is taught as a series of research modules, focuses on teaching students the scientific method and how to write science papers. Students learn a technique (e.g., microscopy or enzyme assays), conduct a multi-week investigative experiment, and finally write a paper in journal format.

Biology 125 has traditionally had a library component as well. First conceived in 1979 as a joint, cooperative effort between the science librarian and faculty members of the St. Olaf College biology department, the assignment, I which has always been course integrated, has seen many permutations and revisions over the years. Indeed, when the library component was developed we used typewriters, card catalogs, and paper indices. As the college transitioned to computerized, online catalogs and databases, so too did the assignment. One constant, however, remained: The science librarian taught students how to search for scientific information and was responsible for grading student papers, which included a fully referenced bibliography. The grading process was tedious and time consuming, encompassing approximately four weeks of the science librarian's time. While the assignment provided students with a foundation for later research, there was no follow-up to reinforce these newly learned skills, in part because of the large number of students enrolled in the course (sometimes approaching 280 in four different lecture sections).

As information science has changed over the past decades, so has biology. The emerging field of bioinformatics dovetails scientific databases such as the Web of Science and Cambridge Scientific Abstracts directly with scientists looking for algorithms via endeavors such as the Human Genome Project. For the first time, these two fields (biology and information science) have become fully integrated. Coupled with this information explosion is the use of bibliographic file management software such as EndNote. We wanted to find a way to introduce students to the power and potential of these emerging technologies.

Our solution

As a means of integrating library information databases and the emerging uses of biology-related databases, a unique exercise was developed. The second experimental module of the semester had been a four-week sequence of labs related to the enzyme peroxidase. In the first three labs, students performed independent (though instructor-guided) experiments to collect data on the physical properties of peroxidase. In week four, the class had a data analysis lab where the instructors talked about what students found and how they would write up their data as a science paper. The following week a paper was due. We expanded the lab series by adding a new lab (the series is now five weeks in duration) at the beginning of the sequence.

This new lab, an introduction to the enzyme peroxidase, emphasizes the use of library databases such as Cambridge Scientific Abstracts and the Web of Science), and molecular modeling databases (three-dimensional structures of biological molecules) found on the web. …