NSDL K-12 Science Literacy Maps: A Visual Tool for Learning

August 26, 2008

By Payo, Robert

Editor’s Note: The National Science Digital Library (NSDL) K-12 Science Literacy Maps are being developed through a partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder, Digital Learning Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and NSDL through funding provided by the National Science Foundation. Finding High-Quality Content

Given the massive amount of science and mathematics content available online, librarians working with science teachers can become lost when attempting to select material that is both compelling for the learner and effective in addressing learning goals. Added to that challenge, Marcia Mardis (2007), assistant professor at Wayne State University, has found that school library media specialists “often state that they lack the personal content knowledge and scientific resource base necessary to confidently engage science educators” in support of science-related curricula.

Tools that help educators identify the most appropriate resources can be a great time saver. Especially useful are tools that not only provide ready access to quality digital materials , but also make the process of searching itself a learning experience. The goal of such digital libraries as the National Science Digital Library (NSDL, <> ), the National Science Foundation’s online library in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and research, is to provide better access to science and math content so these materials can be used effectively.

Research has shown that learning-especially for the novice-is enhanced when concepts are structured as knowledge maps. NSDL K-12 Science Literacy Maps <> have been designed to be especially useful for curricular planning and development. These maps consist of central ideas that are further delineated into smaller, discrete ideas displayed as a branched tree of nodal associations and relationships of ideas (O’Donnell et al. 2002). In other words, a mapped representation of scientific thought is organized into concepts such as “the nature of science” or “the living environment.” These larger concepts are categorized into smaller ideas such as “evidence and reasoning in inquiry” or “flow of energy in ecosystems,” respectively. Finally, these ideas are broken down into specific learning goals, and their relationships to one another are mapped.

Our interactive map structure mimics American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s comprehensive, interlinked array of K-12 benchmarks in the Atlas of Science Literacy (AAAS 2001), part of their ambitious Project 2061 initiative. By categorizing and organizing these benchmarks, the Atlas of Science Literacy represents a web of interrelated strands of science and mathematical concepts. The recent release of volume 2 of the Atlas has added additional maps and benchmarks including historical perspectives in science, common themes related to science (for example, models, constancy, and patterns of change) , mathematical concepts of reasoning, and the nature of mathematics. The content of volume 2 will be incorporated into the NSDL maps by the time this article is published.

Visualizing Science Literacy Benchmarks

Utilizing the maps and information developed through the Project 2061 Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the Atlas for Science Literacy, Digital Learning Sciences and NSDL partnered together to create a tool that allows users to search and identify resources selected from the NSDL collection that are associated with the concepts illustrated in the maps and their related benchmarks across a scope and sequence of grade levels. The benchmarks display the progressive development of students’ understanding of science ideas over time. With a glance at the visual display, teachers and librarians can plan curricula and identify potential gaps in student knowledge. In addition to improving access to quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics resources, this tool can also build educators’ pedagogical content knowledge and strengthen alliances between library media specialists and science teachers.

Here’s an example of how it is used: Let’s say I want to look up resources on plate tectonics. Under the larger category, “the physical setting,” I see a list of subcategories that include plate tectonics.

Clicking on “plate tectonics” allows me to see statements (benchmarks) dealing with ocean plates and how they move, earthquakes occurring between plate boundaries, and how the theory of plate tectonics describes these phenomena. These benchmarks span across grade levels, showing a progression or strand of statements related to understanding plate tectonic theory.

When I select one of these benchmarks, NSDL search results related to that benchmark appear. These results can include interactives, tutorials, simulations and other materials from resource providers such as the American Museum of Natural History, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and multimedia resources from Teachers’ Domain of WGBH.

Interactive Maps as a Cognitive Tool

In a broader sense, the researchers who created these interactive maps refer to these maps as a type of “strand map service” to describe its wider applications. Visually representing relationships between benchmarks, concepts, standards, or any type of developed map of interrelated ideas provides the scaffolding for how these strands are connected to one another. A secondary purpose is that it provides the context underlying the relationships. In the case of the NSDL maps, digital resources associated with each of the benchmarks are displayed. These multiple purposes allow the user to both see connections between ideas over time and simultaneously obtain richer information about each of these ideas.

Viewing relationships in this way is cognitively different from conducting a general search for information and examining a list of results. Tamara Sumner, principal investigator for the strand map service at the University of Colorado at Boulder, led a study comparing the cognitive processes of users who utilized a keyword search strategy with those who used interactive maps of Earth science benchmarks. Participants were given a topic to search and were instructed to conduct their search in a “talk aloud” session in front of an evaluator and to describe the processes they were using to select material. Statements made during the talk aloud session were recorded and categorized on the basis of each participant’s actions.

People who performed a keyword query on a search engine often selected results on the basis of surface features such as format type, rarely mentioning the science content’s relevance to their instructional goals. In contrast, educators using the interactive benchmark maps tended to view their results conceptually; that is, they evaluated their results on the basis of how well the science content and specific resources could support their learning goals for students (Butcher et al. 2005). By visually following the progression that a science expert would use when thinking about a particular scientific phenomenon, the searcher was guided by the visual map interface to build content knowledge and focus on key instructional priorities.

Potentially, strand maps can be used for other innovative applications. For example, school districts could connect curricular guidelines, standards, and curricula to NSDL resources through customized map formats developed for their district portal. To encourage such “mashups,” a JavaScript Application Programminsf Interface is now available: < index> . School or district Web developers can put these maps into their own Web pages and customize them with their own content such as notes, lesson plans, or school district curricular guidelines to be displayed in the local version of the map browser. Our long-range goal is to continue to make quality resources within digital libraries more useful and better tailored to the curricular needs of school media specialists and the teachers with whom they work.

For more information, go to < librarians> or contact Robert Payo, NSDL Education and Outreach Specialist at rpayo@nsdl.ucar.edu.

Works Cited

AAAS. 2001. Atlas of Science Literacy. Arlington, Va.: National Science Teachers Association.

Butcher, K. R., S. Bhushan, and T. Sumner. 2005. “Multimedia Displays for Conceptual Discovery: Information Seeking with Strand Maps.” Multimedia Systems 11, no. 3, 236-48.

O’Donnell, A. M., D. F. Dansereau, and R. H. Hall. 2002. “Knowledge Maps as Scaffolds for Cognitive Processing.” Educational Psychology Review 14, no. 1, 71-86.

Mardis, M. and R. Payo. 2007. “Making the School Library Sticky: Digital Libraries Build Teacher-Librarians’ Strategic Implementation Content Knowledge in Science.” Teacher Librarian 34, no. 5, 8-14.

Robert Payo


Robert Payo is the Education and Outreach Specialist for the National Science Digital Library. He attributes his love of science to the memorable times his family visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he eventually worked for thirteenjears before working with NSDL.

Copyright American Library Association Mar/Apr 2008

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