What can a library — and a librarian — teach students about science, scientific investigation, and critical thinking?
On Friday, April 29, 2016, the University of Michigan-Flint hosted Super Science Friday, an event aimed at 7th and 8th grade students to demonstrate various scientific areas of inquiry and encourage them to get involved in scientific research themselves.
Several of our teaching faculty offered visiting students from schools across Genesee county presentations dealing with a wide variety of topics which illuminated specific fields of scientific investigation.
One such presentation was conducted by Thompson Library’s own Laura Friesen, librarian.
Laura titled her presentation, “Science in the Library: Icebergs, the Internet and other things that start with ‘I.’”
Her presentation was designed to encourage students to look beyond the obvious and develop critical thinking skills and apply those skills to scientific investigation. Beyond that, Laura demonstrated what working scientist did with the information they gathered through scientific methodology (conducting experiments while observing and recording results).
The students attending her presentation — two groups of 8th graders attending Mt Morris and Genesee Christian Academy — were reminded that scientific investigation done well required careful observation.
The students then had the opportunity to observe and consider the physical traits of a large, rectangular block of ice Laura had brought into the classroom. Laura explains that she created the block by pouring water into a loaf pan and freezing it.
The block of ice was placed in a deep bucket of water. Not surprisingly, the block floated on the water. The block floated in a horizontal position, very little showing above the water line and with a long flat side exposed to air. The rest of the block of ice sunk under the water line, “hidden” beneath the water.
Laura changed the parameters of the ice block to observe what would happen. She tilted the ice block vertically in the water.
Instead of sinking below the water, it stood on-end, with half of the block visible above the water.
Laura released the block. It flipped back and returned to it’s former horizontal position, floating with the majority of it’s substance beneath the water, but notably wider from side-to-side than it was deep.
After observing how the ice block behaved when placed into deep water, the students were now directed to the Internet, where Laura searched for and displayed several photographs of icebergs.
She specifically selected one particular image from those available online and asked the students to think about that image and compare what they saw in the image to what they had learned about how ice behaved as it floated in water.
As the students considered what they had learned doing their experiment and compared it to the image on-screen, they detected a few anomalies.
The image showed an iceberg that was notably longer top-to-bottom than it was side-to-side, thrusting deeply into the water while remaining very narrow (side-to-side) at the surface of the water, even though it was no wider below surface than above.
The students carefully examined the image and compared it against what they had discovered during their experiment, and concluded that the image displayed could not possibly exist in nature.
All students attending the class had ably demonstrated that they could apply knowledge they had gained (information regarding the behavior of large bodies of ice floating in water), to an image found on the Internet. They used critical thinking skills, dissecting the image and what properties it visually described they believedto be viable — and which were not.
Using this knowledge, the students declared the Internet image to be pure fakery.
The students were correct.
The image Laura had pulled up from an online website was actually a composite made up of four disparate images:
- one of the sky,
- one of the water as background,
- one of the tip of the iceberg,
- and yet another of another tip of an iceberg turned up-side-down
The image created a psuedo-iceberg that appeared to show the observer both above water and below at the same time.
But appearances can be deceiving!
Without critical thinking skills, anyone looking at that image on the Internet could be lead to believe it was a single image which displayed how an iceberg looked and behaved when floating in the ocean.
The exercise demonstrated to the students why finding the necessary criteria (either through published results of research done by other scientists or by their own experimentation and observations) and applying that information to the situation presented to them is vital in forwarding scientific investigation.
Laura went beyond the basic experiment into the concept of using the observations of other scientists. This is where the importance of a library was considered — and investigated.
A scientist does not need to begin their research from nothing. They use the experimentation and observations of earlier scientists to increase their understanding of the universe and how it works.
By using the knowledge (writings) of those that have come before, the new investigators can “stand on the shoulders of giants” to learn what has already been discovered and create their own research projects, then add their observations and conclusions to the body of human knowledge and understandings as valued scientific contributors.
To illustrate this concept, Laura showed the students the first article written by Sir Isaac Newton, published in 1672.
That article is available to all UM-Flint researchers through the Thompson Library database JSTOR.
Laura then broke the students up into teams and had each team read and present to the class information from articles published in either National Geographic or Discover. This exercise demonstrated the need for scientists to organize their information and present it logically to their peers to help further human understanding.
With a new appreciation for the scientific observations and published writings of earlier scientists to inform and direct the research of a new generation of scientists, the students considered the various presentations they had heard.
As a whole, the class voted on which team of scientific presenters did the best job of interpreting the information from their article to the rest of the class. The winning teams were awarded a prize — a science book selected by a librarian specifically for this event. (What else would a librarian consider a prize than a book full of knowledge?!)
The students left Laura’s class with a better understanding of the value of a library and its purpose of collecting and providing access to information compiled by researchers using scientific methodology to gather knowledge and share it with other researchers.
To stand on the shoulders of giants, to gain knowledge collected by scientist and academics engaged in research within a variety of subjects, and to eventually share new information with other researchers — the library is the place to start and the eventual depository for all scientific inquiry.
Scientific investigation and observation, recording and disseminating information, collecting and sharing that information, research skills to find and use the knowledge provided by earlier researchers and furthered by critical analysis thinking skills — teaching these skills are all in a days work for a librarian.