PRIMO Site of the Month Interview: April 2021

Thinking Like a Scientist

Creators and Interviewees: Dani Brecher Cook, Michael Yonezawa, and Phyllis Ung 

Institution:  University of California, Riverside

Interviewer: Rebecca Maniates 

Description of project (provided by creators):  This interactive tutorial was a collaborative effort between the UCR Library and the Biology Department. It reframes traditional library searching skills around the idea of “thinking like a scientist.” The primary developer for this project was an undergraduate STEM student.

Q: What led to the creation of the Thinking Like a Scientist module?

A: For almost 40 years, the UCR Library had been working with the introductory biology course on campus (BIOL 05LA). Over the past few years, we have been working very closely with the course’s academic coordinator, Dr. Star Lee, to make sure that the outcomes of the library session continued to align with the course. They transitioned to a CREATE-focused quarter-long assignment, which asked students to read and analyze a scholarly journal article based on its coverage in the news. We collaborated on a study to see if students actually gained the skills needed to do that work through the pre-work that we assigned and the in-person library sessions, and we discovered that they didn’t, really. So, this opened an opportunity for us to think about completely re-imagining our approach to support for the course.

Q: Who was involved in the creation of the module? What was everyone’s role?

A: The conversation began between Star Lee, the academic coordinator for the course, and Dani Brecher Cook, the Library’s Director of Teaching & Learning. Michael Yonezawa, Early Experience Teaching Librarian, also participated in the initial discussions and scoping for the project. Dani then worked on drafting an outline for the module with Phyllis Ung, a UCR undergraduate and exceptional designer. We were able to hire Phyllis through a generous grant from our Undergraduate Education division. After a round of content editing, Phyllis served as the primary designer and animator for the module. Dani and Michael served as the project sponsors, worked on small pieces of the project, and wrote content. 

Q: Did you collaborate with any stakeholders outside the UC Riverside Libraries as you developed the module?

A: We talked a little bit about the module design and goals with colleagues at UCLA, who were also working on a CREATE-focused project. But the goal of the project was really to meet our local need for a large-scale, required course, and to incorporate moments of meaning for UCR students (such as the quotes from biology faculty). 

Q: Who is the intended audience, and what is the primary intended use of the Thinking Like a Scientist module? Is it only integrated into Bio 05LA?  What about other classes, workshops, assignments, etc.?

A: The primary audience for this module are BIOL 05LA students, though it’s also been used by students in the accelerated version of the course. It was meant to be pre-work for students before an in-person library experience and to prepare them to complete their CREATE-related course assignment. However, due to the pandemic, we are now using the module as a standalone library experience for BIOL 05LA students. It is integrated into their learning management system (LMS) and is required for students to complete. We are also using it in the accelerated version of the course BIOL 020.

The intention was always to build this with the specific course and outcomes in mind, and it felt like a good investment of our time and energy since we reach about 500 students through the course each quarter. As it turns out, now that we’ve shown it as an example to other departments and librarians, it’s actually a great template for adaptation for other subject areas, including history and psychology. For example, Phyllis and our Primary Source Literacy Teaching Librarian, Robin Katz, are now working on creating a version on thinking like a historian. Michael and Phyllis are planning on adapting the module for a research methodologies in psychology course by Fall 2021.  

Q: What technologies do you utilize for this tutorial, and why did you choose them?  Would you recommend these technologies to others? Why or why not?

A: The module was primarily created in Articulate Rise, which is a learning module creation software that is part of the Articulate 360 package. It has many drag-and-drop elements that we were able to utilize easily and met many of our needs well. We found the learning curve on it to be minimal, and would recommend it to others, though the pricing is a little steep.

For custom animations and other more complex interactive blocks, Phyllis primarily used Articulate Storyline, which is a much more complex tool. However, it allowed us to achieve the interactivity we were hoping for in the module, while leveraging the more plug-and-play options from Rise. Phyllis created the animated videos using PowerPoint (!!!) and did the recording and captioning using Camtasia.

Q: You also use the animated content with the aliens in the chemistry-focused modules.  How did you develop the characters and animated videos in this module?   Does UC Riverside plan to continue this storyline?

A: When we planned the project, we knew that we wanted to create characters that wouldn’t age really quickly or belong to a specific demographic category. We didn’t find any stock animation that really resonated with us, so Phyllis invented these awesome, shape-based characters who we call “the Atoms,” who are reasonably easy to manipulate to do various activities. They appear in all of our existing modules, and we hope to continue to use them!

Q: Please tell me a little bit about the development process overall.  Were there any best practices, design frameworks, and/or accessibility guidelines you tried to follow while creating this module?

A: We followed a backward design approach, beginning with the outcomes that we were working toward and mapping the rest of the design to that. We created a flow map using our large departmental whiteboard, then moved that into an outline in collaborative Google Doc. After we created a flow for the module, Phyllis created a storyboard of the module on paper.

Throughout the design process, we wanted to make sure we designed with accessibility in mind, using universal design principles. We have captions and alt text on all our videos and images, and most of the module can be read by screen readers and navigated by keyboard. That said, we still have work to do to make the module fully accessible, which will improve the experience for all our students.

One of our guiding principles was “don’t be uncool,” because we felt like we had participated in a lot of online learning that tried to be hip or timely and ultimately fell flat. This is one of many reasons that we were so fortunate to be able to have an undergraduate collaborator, who helped us to identify more timeless approaches and steered us away from any gimmicks.

Q: From planning to launch, how long did it take to complete the project? Was it more or less time than you originally planned?

A: It took us about a year from inception to launch, which was essentially what we had outlined in the project plan. Our timing turned out to be fortuitous, as the module had one quarter of use before we transitioned to remote teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant we didn’t have to scramble to figure out how to transition our in-person teaching for this course. We were able to plan out our timing reasonably accurately, as we had completed a similar project the year before, where we learned a lot about how long development actually takes.

Q: Did you encounter any difficulties or unexpected challenges along the way?  What have you learned from the development process that you will carry over into the next tutorial?

A: But of course! Like any project, we had some unexpected bumps in the road, mainly related to technology. Because we chose to theme the project to climate change, the content is unfortunately relevant for the foreseeable future, but some pieces that weren’t finished by March 13 (our last day on campus) became more challenging to complete remotely. For example, some of our family members helped to provide narration (voiceover) throughout the module, as our voiceover folks did not have access to a good microphone at home.

We entered the development process knowing that we would have to be flexible based on our own technical limitations, and that served us pretty well throughout. One lesson we’ve learned (and keep learning, in every project) is to limit the number of screenshots, which inevitably change over time.

From student feedback, we think we would continue to add more sections for actual practice with search tools. In some ways, it feels like you can never have enough opportunities for practicing the concepts, especially with built-in feedback.

Q:  Did you assess the effectiveness of the module in meeting your established objectives/goals?

A: We are relying on our academic partners in BIOL 05LA to share with us how student products in the CREATE series improve (or not) over time. Students are also asked to write a reflective statement about their search process, that we can then also use to see if they discuss the skills taught in the tutorial. We do have a Qualtrics form embedded in the tutorial, but it asks purely affective questions such as: Do students feel confident in finding scholarly journal articles after completing the tutorial, and do they find it useful?  While affective data is helpful (it’s hard to be successful if you don’t feel like you will be), that doesn’t get us objective data. We also can see scores in the LMS, but we’ve set the tutorial to not be able to complete unless students reach a threshold score–so the scores are not that useful either. We’d love to do a more thorough study on this.

Q:  How do you promote Thinking Like a Scientist – and your other modules – to the University community?

A: Because we created the module in concert with the Biology department, we had significant buy-in by the time we launched, and that has tended to be our approach in deciding on which projects to take on. That being said, these modules have been really helpful as proof-of-concept for inspiring other departments to think about creative ways that we can help meet their information literacy learning goals, and contextualizing information literacy within disciplines.

Q:  How did users provide feedback during the development process or afterwards?

A: We solicited feedback on our outline from biology faculty members that we incorporated into the design of the module before we started actually building any of the content. After a full draft was complete, we had undergraduate student testers go through the module and provide their feedback. We continue to gather feedback from the students taking the module each quarter through a Qualtrics form and iteratively continue to update and develop the module. So far, additional development has been minor.

Q:  We appreciate that you offer this, and other UCR modules, under a CC-BY-NC license.  Do you know if any other libraries have adopted this content?

A: We don’t know, but we’d love to hear from you if you have or find any piece of this useful!

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

A (Phyllis Ung): Sharing my perspective as a student creator, I had a really fun and rewarding experience while working with Dani, Michael, and everyone who shared their input to create this module. As a student in a large university, I often felt like I had little control over what I was learning, and my opinions weren’t important. While creating this module, Dani gave me a lot of creative freedom and trust, and because of that I was able to incorporate many personal elements based on my own experiences as a STEM student. It was eye-opening and empowering being on the other side helping to create this module for my peers. Through this module, I hope others will be inspired to create more opportunities that highlight student voices and encourage them to play a more active role in their education.