Modeling Inquiry: Using the Scientific Method to Explore Rare Books with Biology Students

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Porcia Vaughn, University of Houston, Houston, TX
This instruction project aims to demonstrate the value rare books can have for science undergraduates in developing information literacy and critical thinking skills. Rare books offer a unique ability to build inquiry and critical thinking skills: the materials are often unfamiliar, with a range of time periods, formats, conventions, and production processes. Material culture methodology, used for examining books as cultural artifacts, aligns with the scientific method; both foreground observation, leading to questions and an iterative, inquiry-driven research process. Applying the steps of the scientific method to rare books, we developed a model to build critical thinking skills. This inquiry model is being piloted with upper-level biology undergraduates in a writing-intensive course. 46 students enrolled in the History and Philosophy of Biology course took part in a 90 minute classroom activity and subsequently individually visited Special Collections to complete an assignment designed to begin their literature research process through engagement with a historical book of their choosing. Through qualitative and quantitative analysis of the class assignment based on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, we can determine the level to which students can 1) draw reasonable conclusions about historical context of scientific literature and 2) value and understand literature research as an open-ended process. Once students study an unfamiliar form like a historic scientific book, those observations including social and cultural context can help bring students to the level of inquiry and critical thinking necessary to systematically read and evaluate contemporary scientific literature.