Integrating Information Literacy into the Disciplines: Is Science Different?

SEAL-South, CARLDIG, SCIL Joint Program

April 25, 2003

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Moderated by: Yvonne Wilson, UC Irvine

This program, co-sponsored by three CARL Interest Groups, focused on two aspects of integrating Information Literacy into the disciplines. The first two presenters, Marcia Bates and Joan Kaplowitz, both from UCLA, focused on whether Information Literacy is, or should be, taught differently in the sciences than in other disciplines. Next, Suellen Cox, Elizabeth Housewright, and Barbie McConnell from CSU Fullerton presented their campus’s project for integrating Information Literacy into the CSUF curriculum focusing on how this was done with the sciences.

Marcia Bates began the program by identifying four key points to consider when integrating Information Literacy instruction into the sciences. First, she stated the importance of making a distinction between the librarians’ way of searching and the scientists’ model for seeking information. The librarians’ way of searching is usually a general purpose model appropriate for undergraduates. Upper division undergraduates and graduate students often learn research more from faculty members in their discipline. Therefore, librarians need to design Information Literacy instruction to enhance and blend with what students will learn later in their discipline-specific studies. Another transferable searching skill Bates emphasized is learning to try different approaches in case one doesn’t work. Bates’ second key point focused on the need to distinguish scientists’ models for searching from humanities scholars’ models. She pointed out various differences in these models: for humanities scholars, discoveries or advances are often made in researching the written word, so libraries and archives are their "laboratories," whereas discoveries or advances in the sciences usually take place in the field or laboratory, not in the articles written about the research. The implications for Information Literacy instruction are that in the sciences, locating a specific written source may not be as important as in the humanities. Bates’ third point was that there are important differences between scientific fields. The mix of types of resources and importance of those resources differ from field to field; for example, some fields share electronic working papers through databases rather than primarily through print articles. Bates’ final point was that we should not underestimate the difference in cognitive styles between scientists and others. A simple example is that Computer Science students may have no problem understanding Boolean searching while students in other disciplines may struggle. Therefore, Information Literacy instructors need to think about what search techniques need to be emphasized for various groups.

Joan Kaplowitz’s presentation focused on whether separate Information Literacy competencies are needed for the sciences or if core Information Literacy competencies fit for all disciplines. Kaplowitz had attendees work in pairs to come up with a few Information Literacy competencies for the sciences and then compare those science-specific competencies with a draft of Information Literacy at UCLA: The Core Competencies to determine if separate science competencies are needed. The sixty attendees, a full house, responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to identify science-specific competencies, and there was a great deal of lively discussion as the groups shared their results. On the whole, this discussion supported Kaplowitz’s main points: core competencies are a starting point which can be modified for various disciplines, and core competencies reach across the disciplines (Ex: defining a research topic). She pointed out that what differs from discipline to discipline is how students show they are information competent.

Suellen Cox, Elizabeth Housewright, and Barbie McConnell discussed the results of a grant-funded project to integrate Information Literacy into the CSU Fullerton curriculum. The grant paid for Information Literacy retreats and progress report meetings as well as departmental support funding. Through the grant, thirty-three out of forty-eight undergraduate departments participated in efforts to integrate Information Literacy into the disciplines. Prior to the grant, among the science departments, Biological Science and Chemistry were regularly requiring some type of library research assignment, library research assignments in Engineering were hit-and-miss, Geological Sciences students used a collection of rocks which were kept on reserve in the library, and Mathematics and Physics had no visible, regular library research assignments. Through collaboration on this project, the library has had the most success with Biological Science and Geological Sciences. This project coincided with departmental curriculum changes in the Biological Science department which resulted in some changes in the order in which classes are taken, more of a problem-based curriculum, and changes in assignments, all of which helped with integrating Information Literacy instruction. In addition, there has been some improvement in Chemistry with regard to changes in library research assignments and added Information Literacy instruction sessions. The other departments still need more work. The three presenters noted challenges to sustaining an integrated Information Literacy program: lack of a campus or CSU requirement for Information Literacy, precious class and lab time, textbook-based curricula, faculty issues, and class sequence issues. However, they also offered recommendations for sustaining an integrated Information Literacy program: look for opportunities on campus, lobby accreditation organizations, and find out what local professionals feel is needed in the workplace.