Science & Research Skills
Sarah Ellison
By Sarah Ellison

March 8, 2019
Fifth grade students started the school year with a science unit discovering birds of the northwest. The Washington Bird Brochure project introduced students to the science of ornithology and also to the science of written research. Using print resources, students learned to identify a bird species native to our state while also learning to use books for research. Many students are more familiar with using a search engine to answer questions than they are with using print resources. This project introduced them to multi-volume encyclopedias, different types of indexes, specialized reference texts, and gave them practice using scientific vocabulary. Why is this important in the digital age? Although the world-wide-web offers billions of information sources accessible through a search interface, our students still need an understanding of how information has been recorded through history. An awareness of alphabetical and subject indexes, tables of contents, and keyword vocabulary is extremely useful to the process of information seeking – whether on the web or in a library. In addition, search engines offer a narrow set of results based on the search terms a student chooses to use, whereas libraries offer discovery through adjacent resources that can expand the scope of concepts and themes.  
Our ability to find information depends on our understanding of how the systems we are using are organized. If students can use an encyclopedia effectively, they will be better prepared to navigate using varied search strategies in either a print or a digital environment. The relationship of birds>waterfowl>merganser>hooded merganser becomes a recognizable hierarchy, rather than a random array.  
One day our 5th grade students will advance to using research libraries in universities, where vast amounts of information remain stored in books, microfilm, archives and other formats no longer in everyday use. Skilled researchers will be able to scour source material whatever the medium rather than settling for information that is conveniently accessible. The bird brochure gave us the opportunity to delve into print resources and broaden students’ understanding of language and research skills in addition to one field of science.  
A second science project this spring will build upon the research foundation. Fifth grade students learning about biomes and food chains will use a wide variety of print resources to discover how matter and energy move through ecosystems. They will also explore information stored in different types of print materials and eBooks. Using physical books involves exploring a text with a sense of how concepts are related, and an understanding of information tiers – the broad topics that define a subject and how they break down into narrower topics. Much digital information design stems from traditional print materials design.  
Search engines offer results based on previous searches using the same terms. Libraries offer discovery – finding information in the catalog or shelved nearby that you didn’t know you needed. The strength of the Bird Brochure and Biome units is giving 5th grade students a solid foundation in information science.
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