Don MacMillan is Liaison Librarian for Biological Sciences, Math, Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library. In this guest post, he highlights how he helped students to develop better information literacy with regards to several bioinformatics sources and offers tips for librarians wishing to do the same in their own institutions. He also spoke on this topic at LIBER 2014. The presentation was among the most highly rated parallel sessions at the conference.
In 2006 I began working with Dr. Isabelle Barrette-Ng — a Biochemistry Instructor at the University of Calgary, Canada — to integrate data literacy within an undergraduate Genetics course.
Through this collaboration, which has since expanded to a second course in Biochemistry, I have developed a working knowledge of a wide range of bioinformatics data sources and a much deeper understanding of researchers’ needs and workflows. This in turn has made me a more valued resource for faculty and students, and ensured that the library is seen as a source of expertise, rather than just a repository of textual information.
In order to work effectively with Dr. Barrette-Ng, I had to become familiar with the data tools used by researchers. This required extensive testing of the activities, including working out what errors students might make in order to develop clearer instructions. Learning to use these tools involved applying my librarian understanding of how information access worked to a whole new set of interoperable resources. Developing these new competencies continues to be an engaging aspect of my work, as bioinformatics is a highly dynamic field where new tools are always emerging and established resources are continually being updated.
What We Did
In 2007, I taught the first Information Literacy (IL) session for a second-year Genetics course, Biology 311- Principles of Genetics to some 550 students. The session introduced students to several gene-based bioinformatics data sources enabling them to investigate the molecular basis of genetically inherited diseases. The students answered structured questions during the lab and were required to use the resources for a poster presentation on a genetic disease topic. The details of the session have changed in response to student feedback and instruction goals but overall it has proven to be an effective, authentic way of familiarising undergraduate students with expert-level tools.
The effectiveness of this session led to the creation of a similar course in 2010, which was also taught by Dr. Barrette-Ng and taken by most students after the Genetics course, BCEM393 – Introduction to Biochemistry. As she was teaching both courses, she saw an opportunity to help students integrate their knowledge of genetics and biochemistry by demonstrating how bioinformatics databases are integrated across these two disciplines. She designed the session to briefly review some of the databases from the genetics course and introduce new ones that focused on protein structure and function. Again, students worked through structured exercises and then revisited the tools to develop a poster presentation, this time more specifically on the effect of mutations on protein structure in genetically inherited diseases.
The overarching goal of these two linked IL sessions is to introduce students to “real-world” data sources early in their academic careers through structured activities and assignments around specific bioinformatics databases.
The overarching goal of these two linked IL sessions is to introduce students to “real-world” data sources early in their academic careers through structured activities and assignments around specific bioinformatics databases. We also want students to better understand the relationship between genetics and biochemistry and to appreciate that the reasons the databases work so well together is because they use functionally integrated data.
Both sessions consistently exploit the links between resources. Students have to use information from one source to explore the next one, or follow the existing links between resources. Questions within the exercise include both requirements to enter particular pieces of data and deeper questions that ask students to consider the links among resources or between databases and the work of biologists. The diagram below lists the tools that were used in each session.
Impact on Student Learning
In using these resources, students learn far more than search techniques. Due to the overlap in the data provided by each source, students learn skills in triangulating information and can determine where they may have made an error when the data no longer match up. They also see that these tools and the data they contain are constantly changing as there may be new or revised data added between the lab session and when they work on their posters, or changes to how data is presented between one workshop and the next. As the students are also required to use more traditional bibliographic resources such as PubMed in their poster presentations, they also learn how these different products of research are related. All of this will stand them in good stead as they use and contribute to science information in their academic careers.
In using these resources, students learn far more than search techniques. Due to the overlap in the data provided by each source, students learn skills in triangulating information and can determine where they may have made an error when the data no longer match up.
Assessment information from both classes indicates that students who have had both sessions are able to articulate the connections between biochemistry and genetics, particularly as it relates to the causes of their disease topics, and understand the role of bioinformatics data in these fields. A number of the current graduate teaching assistants benefited from the sessions as undergraduates and are able to reinforce the efficacy of these instruction sessions at the undergraduate level.
Things to Consider
For librarians who would like to take a similar approach in their own institutions, I can recommend the following.
- Be prepared to spend time learning bioinformatics sources and keeping up to date with new developments. These resources can change quickly, often the day before the labs are scheduled to begin. Be prepared to adapt quickly and often!
- Integrate bioinformatics instruction with real course needs. Grades should appropriately recognize the work that students will have to do.
- Use activities that guide students through sources by highlighting key aspects of each one and demonstrating connections between resources and scientific practice. As much as possible, the exercises should simulate how researchers use the tools to answer specific kinds of questions.
- Students learn by doing, make sure there is time for hands-on practice and interactivity.
- Reinforce the learning in the session with a second assignment that requires students to use the tools independently.
Introducing students to bioinformatics resources in these two information literacy sessions not only helped students understand the molecular and structural basis of genetically inherited diseases but also facilitated content and knowledge transfer between genetics and biochemistry.
This innovative approach to data literacy has had benefits for the librarian’s work with other faculty and graduate students. The greatest beneficiaries, however, are the students who gain real life experience with current biomedical resources.
Using data at this level promotes the role of librarians in teaching students to use data resources in conjunction with more traditional bibliographic sources. Adapting our knowledge and revamping our skills ensures we remain relevant in a changing information environment resulting in more effective collaborations with faculty.