James Dearworth, Associate Professor of Biology

Q: You actually specify in the syllabus for BIOL 214: Neuroanatomy that one of the course goals is to educate students about information literacy. Practically speaking, what do you hope your students will get out of the information literacy focus of your courses?

A: In science, it’s often difficult to read articles written by experts in the field. Students can read the text, come to the lectures, and hear me talk, but for them to get a real understanding of how the field works, they need to be able to read primary sources where the actual experiments are done. That’s where information literacy comes in. So number one, they have to be able to understand what primary sources are. Often that’s a challenge in itself. Number two, they have to go out and find these sources, and not only find the sources but find the sources that best fit their interests. Then, how good is the source? Is it in a good journal? Is it the actual study? They have to be able to analyze some articles for themselves, break down the strengths and weaknesses, and apply them to a project they’re interested in. Hopefully, by the end, they have a much bigger picture of what’s going on.

Q: Some professors might feel they don’t have enough time to focus on information literacy in their classes when there’s so much content to cover, or that students get introduced to academic research in the FYS so it’s taken care of. What would you say to such statements?

A: Well it’s definitely a challenge. You have to figure out how you’re going to time this so that you not only teach them about primary sources but give them a project to actually go out and apply what they’re learning. Fortunately in biology we have supplemental time slots. In Neuroanatomy we do gross dissections of the brain but there’s some time left over that I can instruct them on finding primary sources. We can come over to the library during laboratory time slots so it works out.

Q: One of your assignments in BIOL 214 requires students to interview biology and neuroscience researchers and to inquire about their research process. Recently, you also invited your colleagues to come to your BIOL 102 course to talk about how they solve problems in their areas of expertise. Are students surprised when their professors and other experts expose their research methods?

A: It helps them get a sense of the significance of the material they’re learning. They’re not just learning something in a textbook, but there are actually people who make a living thinking about these things and who have a passion. That, in a sense, might be a surprise because some students think their goal is to use this as background to go to medical school, which is a much different motivation. I think they like to see that people are actually enthusiastic about this material. For example, the problem we had for BIOL 102 was about zebra mussels, the freshwater mollusk that’s become very invasive in the Great Lakes and all over the United States. It’s a problem that’s damaging water pipe supplies. Not only that, it’s disturbing the ecosystem and outplacing a lot of native freshwater species. Professor Elaine Reynolds came in and gave her perspective on how she would go about studying the zebra mussel from a neuroscientist’s point of view. Students appreciate hearing from somebody else who is applying their interests.

Q: You’ve been working with librarian Lijuan Xu for over five years now and the information literacy requirements of your BIOL 214: Neuroanatomy course keep evolving. As well, you are now adding more information literacy components to your other courses, such as BIOL 101 and 102. What motivates you to keep honing your assignments and adding new information literacy challenges?

A: There is a general trend toward students not just being lectured at but actively becoming a part of the learning process. I think if they’re educated on how to go out and understand original literature sources, they might become interested in performing original experiments, too. Information literacy goes hand-in-hand with that philosophy, getting them to become a part of the process as opposed to just being microphones, picking up what they’re being told. The more advanced courses lend themselves well because the students have to do experiments, so they have to go out and find sources. In the more general classes that may not be automatic, but I think the sooner you make students aware of these things, the better.

Q: Recently, you also introduced problem-based learning into BIOL 102. Have you noticed any difference in your students since you’ve started to introduce these techniques, either in terms of the quality of their work or motivation or interest?

A: It’s a little hard to tell because I haven’t done it that long, but they seem to be more engaged, not as passive. I think that’s what it’s all about, to get them doing the learning as opposed to you just teaching them. They’re teaching themselves and they’re not even aware of it. So I do think it’s a motivation tactic. This is especially true in large sections that are usually lecture based. There are some students who don’t like working in small groups with problems, but I think it’s for their own good.

Q: In terms of specific information literacy tasks that you’ve had students engage in, can you share one that you think worked well and another that did not work so well?

A: The zebra mussel one seemed to work fairly well (BIOL 102). I’m not sure zebra mussels were a hot topic, but the approach worked because it made the students focus on a problem. And then we forced them to take on roles because within biology there are multiple disciplines: evolutionary biologists, physiologists, neuroscientists, conservation biologists. The students were forced to take on those roles and then find articles associated with those different disciplines and apply what they learned to come up with a solution or provide insight on why zebra mussels are a problem. The construct worked pretty well and I think the students got it.

Q: And how did they know what journals each discipline within biology published in? Was that part of what they were learning?

A: That was a challenge, to point them in the right direction. Our visitors Elaine Reynolds and Megan Rothenberger, who’s a conservation biologist, shared some ideas of where they would look. And Lijuan came in and provided some good examples of sources and keyword searches. It helped that we went over evolution and mechanisms in class so students knew some terminology.

Projects that didn’t work so well? The expert interviews were good, but sometimes the students lost sight of what the point of them was. We gave them questions to ask the experts, and some students just stuck to the script. They weren’t engaged by it. We also had different modes in which they interviewed, so just the way they were doing it was more exciting for some groups. For example, we had some who did videoconferencing over the Internet from the conferencing facility over at Markle Hall. The students really enjoyed that because they got a chance to see an expert in another part of the country. You can sit as a group of four or five people with little microphones and zoom in the camera. So the students who had the opportunity to do it that way got a much richer experience than, say, people who did it by email. Overall, though, I haven’t had any real disappointments.

Q: Now that you’re incorporating more information literacy skill-building into your 100 level courses, do you think that obviates the need to continue to include information literacy assignments at the 200 and 300 level?

A: Definitely not. What happens is that you’re building in layers. As students learn more and more about a field, it’s just that much more powerful so you can’t leave them when they move onto the next level, you’ve got to build on it so they can get more sophisticated. Also some of the students may take general biology and that’s it, so at least you’ve exposed them at that level. But repetition is always better.

Q: You spoke with Lijuan last year at the Patriot League Conference about your collaboration. What was the reaction from faculty at other Patriot League institutions?

A: I had at least one or two people come up to me after the presentation. I spoke with a faculty member from Bucknell. He’s asked students with whom he’s doing research to write paper introductions, and they don’t know how. By teaching students how to understand scientific papers in my courses, I don’t have to then tell them how to write a paper introduction when they’re working in my lab. We also talked about molecular biology, which is a growing field. Information literacy becomes even more important in the fields that are rapidly moving. There are new journals coming out, new projects, new findings, and if students aren’t aware of how to access them, they’re going to be in trouble. There were some other people from Lafayette there, too, who seemed pretty interested. It was nice to hear from different disciplines.

Q: Once again this year, the library and the Provost’s Office are going to be offering an information literacy grant of $1000 to faculty to develop classes in which students have opportunities to develop information literacy skills. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement to give faculty considering applying for the grant?

A: It’s always nice to try something new and different. In the long run, it will benefit you because you’re educating students on how to work with you so that they can help you. Obviously everybody is different in how they do things, each discipline is different, so there’s no one size fits all. The way I do information literacy is not necessarily going to be the best for other faculty. So it’s just a matter of thinking out how you use information literacy to do what you do, and then how you would go about teaching students to do it.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up the interview?

A: It’s always nice to have the support of people at the school and the librarians are an important resource. When you’re teaching your FYSes, you can kind of sit back and let others, who are better at it, be involved in the process. That’s why we have a library.

I also think information gathering has become more challenging because of the electronic environment. Everything’s on the Internet, which sounds great, but you become overwhelmed. So it’s important that there’s some sort of guidance. How can it hurt, right?

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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 24, no. 2).