Digital Libraries in the Science Classroom

An Opportunity for Inquiry

Raven Wallace, Joseph Krajcik, and Elliot Soloway
University of Michigan Digital Library Project
Middle Years Digital Library Project
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

D-Lib Magazine, September 1996

ISSN 1082-9873

"Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science." (National Research Council, 1996, p. 31)

Digital libraries offer a unique and unprecedented resource through which teachers can facilitate student inquiry. In the recent National Research Council publication quoted above, National Science Education Standards, emphasis on inquiry is pervasive. Yet, when it comes to textbooks and curricula as they exist today, the clear emphasis is on learning science content disconnected from experience. Although digital libraries can't change pedagogy or textbooks, they can make it possible for students to have access to scientific information and data which interests them, a fundamental requirement for authentic inquiry. Digital libraries can provide teachers with a feasible way to let students pursue their own interests within the bounds of the curriculum and without creating an enormous amount of extra work in providing students with materials to support their investigations. This article will explore the ways in which digital libraries can support inquiry learning.

We are looking at the benefits of digital libraries in high schools and middle schools through our experiences with implementation of University of Michigan's Digital Library (UMDL). In particular, we will focus here on students asking their own questions, and learning through sustained inquiry. This article will address the following questions:

Why is it important for students to ask their own questions and how does it contribute to inquiry based learning?

Educational researchers have long been grappling with the implementation of sustained inquiry learning and teaching. Our research is exploring how such implementation affects and is affected by the use of digital libraries in schools. We are looking at the relationship between digital libraries and the five key characteristics identified by Blumenfeld et al in their research on project based science. (Blumenfeld et al, 1991; Krajcik et al, 1994; UMDL Teaching and Learning Group Framework) We know that:

In analysis by this research group and its predecessors in Project Based Science, another project at the University of Michigan, the importance of students' asking their own questions is paramount. We have found that, when students are encouraged and supported in developing appropriate questions about subjects of interest to them, they are more likely to engage in activities for the purpose of learning, rather than completing assignments for grades or because it is the task at hand. (Alloway, et al, 1996; Crawford, 1996) On the Web, if students look for information without engaging in an intellectual task -- that is, if they just look for an answer or try to finish an assignment -- their level of frustration can be enormous: in some instances, we saw students who normally do well in school give up. Many students resorted to using an encyclopedia at the end of a day of on-line searching. This can be a result of the nature of the question -- eg, too focused -- or because of lack of engagement in the task of answering the question.

Other research has found that students often lose track of what they are doing (and where they are) when they look for information using hypermedia tools, both because of the nature of the tool (ie, the structure of the information is often unclear) and because of the nature of the medium, which can distract the student and encourage a lack of focus. (Marchionini, 1993) The driving question can provide a focus for investigation and can be helpful in avoiding the disorientation and lack of focus often problematic in hypermedia environments.

We have found that students are accustomed to being given a question for which they are expected to find a simple, straightforward answer. This is the end-of-the-chapter mode in textbooks, and something that many students learn to do well. It is very hard for students to believe that their own questions are important, and that sometimes no one can give them a single answer. To learn through inquiry, they must find information, treat it as evidence, evaluate its importance and validity, and make sense of it in the context of their question. For many students, this is a new set of expectations, very different from what they normally do in school.

How do digital libraries help make inquiry learning possible?

For teachers who try to involve their students in sustained inquiry, one of the problems they face is providing and managing materials and data. In more traditional approaches to curriculum, material is provided through textbooks, and data is gathered in lab exercises which tend to be tightly controlled. In the traditional environment, students are usually not allowed to ask their own questions, in part because the likelihood is small that relevant information will be available within the curriculum resources. Students are not given opportunities to pursue their own scientific interests.

By contrast, digital libraries offer the possibility for teachers and students to have access to extensive materials and data across a wide range of subjects from within the classroom or school library. Although the teacher doesn't have the materials in hand, their ready availability makes it feasible for students to conduct meaningful investigations using digital library resources as part of their classroom activities and doing research in the classroom, the media center and the public library. This brings the activity of doing research into the teacher's domain, and with it a new emphasis on asking questions and looking for information.

An example may clarify the difference these resources could make in a science classroom. Suppose the subject is natural disasters and a student wants to investigate the question "What would it be like to be in an earthquake?" Without access to on-line resources, a student might go to the library and look for newspaper accounts of earthquakes. Depending on where the student lives, there might be many resources (eg, if the student is in San Francisco), or few resources (eg, in Detroit) However, by going to the Web, the student can easily find current, first person accounts of earthquake experiences along with scientific data about recent earthquakes. With good pedagogical support, this question could lead to significant learning about earthquakes.

Several important features of digital libraries make them significantly different from traditional libraries in ways which support student learning:

  1. Content is current. Students can obtain the most current information regarding the questions they are exploring. For example, projects on weather can track current hurricanes, or follow other major weather events as they are occuring.
  2. Content can be from primary resources. In many circumstances, students will use the same data and information sources as scientists. NASA images are a good example of this type of resource. Research is ongoing within UMDL and related projects to develop tools for making data in various representations more accessible and useful through digital libraries (eg., UMDL image retrieval systems, Hi-C Viz-It data visualization tool )
  3. Content is comprehensive, providing breadth and depth in many subject areas. In typical libraries used by secondary school students, a subset of popular and scholarly material on a given subject is available. The UMDL and other digital libraries can expand the range of content enormously, giving students access to an unprecedented breadth of information sources.
  4. Resources are represented in various formats. In particular, information is available in digital form for easy manipulation and use by students. Video and sound provide new information (for example, dynamic views of the ozone holes), and new ways of receiving information (eg, from a map server), revealing new possibilities for students to build understanding.
  5. Students can create material for publication and publish in a digital library. This enables students to share their work with a wider audience and creates different motivations and expectations for students. UMDL researchers are looking carefully at the implications of publishing for student learning.
  6. Content is readily accessible. Information is in a single source, obtainable from the point of access. From the users point of view, the information can be obtained at the same time and from the same place as when it is located. This is in sharp contrast to using traditional resources which could mean finding one source at school, another at the public library, and something else through a personal contact. Timeliness can be a big factor in engaging students in investigations, allowing them to do follow their interests without interruption.

These features are explained more extensively in our framework. We are especially interested in whether the hypothesized benefits of the different features of digital resources can be realized in the classroom.

How is UMDL supporting sustained inquiry?

During the 1995-96 school year, we focused on Web-based materials and tools, using our observations as feedback in the UMDL design cycle. Although by most definitions the Web is not a digital library (Levy and Marshall, 1995), using Web-based tools and sites has given us extensive information about interfaces for students, about novice behavior in on-line searching, and about scaffolding student learning through on-line tools. In collaboration with teachers and curriculum developers from a local school district, we developed short projects for use in sixth and ninth grade classes. Much of our effort this year went toward getting hardware in place and helping familiarize teachers with hardware, software and the Internet. In spite of the enormous effort involved in getting the schools and teachers on-line, we were able to complete three 6-day projects in classes of three high school science teachers; and two 6-day projects in classes of 6 middle school science teachers.

Our support of inquiry has involved several strategies:
  • The project materials themselves have been designed and redesigned to scaffold on-line inquiry. An example of one of our opening pages is shown here.
  • We have worked closely with teachers to begin developing teacher materials to help them understand and implement appropriate uses of digital resources.

What is our research telling us?

During the last school year, we collected data in classrooms of eleven teachers including video tape of students using UMDL resources, student and teacher interviews, and classroom observations. Various qualitative analysis techniques are being applied to make sense of the data. (Krajcik, et al, 1994; Jackson et al, in press) Our preliminary analyses indicate several important trends in the data:

1. Students need to ask questions that are important to them. We have observed that when students ask their own questions, they take personal ownership in finding information and synthesizing a response. Higher levels of motivation and greater success in finding information is more likely. The possibility that digital libraries provide to let students ask their own questions truly differentiates digital libraries from any resources students have had access to in the past.

For example, in one interdisciplinary project, students were given the assignment of writing a fictional piece set in Africa. They were to use UMDL to find real information from Africa (including such things as geographical features, weather, cultural characteristics) to use in their stories. This activity generated great enthusiasm among students, even those who are often not successful in school activities. Some of the resulting Africa stories can be read on-line.

2. The classroom environment must encourage inquiry. In an environment in which students are expected to think and voice their opinions and ideas, and in which students have the freedom and resources to do so, inquiry can happen and meaningful use of digital library resources can be made. On the other hand, we have found that it is hard for students and teachers to move from a telling and receiving mode to an inquiry mode. It is not something that occurs automatically, just because digital libraries are available. We are currently working on tools and techniques to help students and teachers make this transition.

3. Better tools can help students make meaningful use of digital library resources for inquiry. Current search engines and Web browsing software are not adequate for learning environments. Web browsers encourage breadth-first searches, and are often extremely frustrating for students. They tend to encourage the thinking, described above of, posing a question and getting an answer. As previously mentioned, we are currently working on a new interface for UMDL, Artemis, which will provide more interactivity, greater opportunity for collaboration, and an improved search capability. Our next generation of on-line projects, which will be implemented during the first semester of the 96-97 school year, will include some of the features of Artemis prior to the first release of the interface. For example, we are including collaborative tools and links to on-line reference materials as part of each project.

4. Collections with age-appropriate and content-rich materials need to be developed for students to benefit from digital libraries. Although there are abundant resources in digital libraries and on the Web, a lot of the material available is not useful to 6th and 9th graders either because of reading level or content. Development of collections has proven to be labor intensive: we are investigating tools which can help with the time consuming process of searching for, evaluating and cataloging resources. These include WebBook, an agent which collects Web pages from a single site on a given topic and creates a searchable "book"; Remora, a notification agent which will allow look for various types of activity within a collection; and Collection Builder, an interface and agent which will provide for on-line registration of materials and collections. The relationship of UMDL architecture to our educational implementation is elaborated more completely in Toward Inquiry-Based Education Through Interacting Software Agents, IEEE Computer, August, 1996.

5. Schools need to be structured in ways that encourage inquiry based education. Issues in restructuring schools include length of classes, content requirements of the curriculum, and availability of technology. Although structural changes are difficult, we must recognize their impact on realizing the goals of learning through inquiry, and on the use of digital libraries in schools. Determined and highly motivated teachers, librarians, and students succeed in learning through inquiry and using new technologies in ways which enhance student understanding, but without structural changes, it is unlikely that the majority of schools will be able to take advantage of the benefits of digital libraries. Instead, we will see digital libraries available on a limited basis, from the computer in the corner of the library.


Digital libraries have the potential to offer unprecedented resources for supporting student inquiry. Access to current content and to an uprecedented breadth of information within a well developed infrastructure can provide students with the opportunity to ask complex questions and do deep analysis. However, in themselves, digital libraries will not make a change in education without changes in the tasks students are asked to perform and in the support provided to students and teachers.

Our research group is actively deploying digital library resources in middle and high school classrooms and collecting data to investigate some of the questions mentioned above. We've learned about the importance of classroom environments which foster student responsibility and independent work; about the need for flexible, interactive tools; about the needs and attitudes of students as they learn through inquiry; and about the contributions and needs of teachers who teach through inquiry. Our research this year will focus on providing more interactive and integrated environments for conducting on-line inquiry; on collection development; and on identifying critical elements of pedagogy and teacher support.


Alloway, G., Bos, N., Hamel, K., Hammerman, T., Klann, E., Krajcik, J., Lyons, D., Madden, T., Margerum-Leys, J., Reed, J., Scala, N., Soloway, E., Vekiri, I., & Wallace, R. M. (1996, July 25-27). Creating an inquiry learning environment using the world wide web. Paper presented at the International Conference on the Learning Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

Atkins, D. E., Birmingham, W. P., Edmund H. Durfee, Glove, E. J., Mullen, T., Rundensteiner, E. A., Soloway, E., Vidal, J. M., Wallace, R., & Wellman, M. P. (1996). Toward Inquiry-Based Education Through Interacting Software Agents. Computer, 29(5), 69-76.

Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating Project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, Supporting the Learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 369-398.

Bos, N. (1996). Using telecommunications to create authentic audiences for student learning: motivational and cognitive factors, URL:

Crawford, B. A. (1996). Examining the essential elements of a community of learners in a middle grade science classroom. , University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Jackson, S., Stratford, S.J., Krajcik, J.S. and Soloway, E. (1996). Making System Dynamics Modeling Accessible to Pre-College Science Students. Interactive Learning Environments, (in press).

Krajcik, J. S., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., & Soloway, E. (1994). A collaborative model for helping middle grade science teachers learn project-based instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 94(5), 483-497.

Levy, D. M., & Marshall, C. C. (1995). Going digital: A look at assumptions underlying digital libraries. Communications of the ACM, 38(4), 77-84.

Marchionini, G. (1993). Information seeking in electronic encyclopedias. Machine Mediated Learning, 3, 211-226.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


This work was supported by the NSF/ARPA/NASA Digital Library Initiative; by grant from the NSF NIE Initiative for the University of Michigan Digital Library project (RED-9554205); and by the University of Michigan. Additional information can be found on the UMDL and Teaching and Learning Group web sites.

National Science Education Standards cover reprinted with permission from NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS. Copyright 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

We wish to thank the members of the UMDL Teaching and Learning Group for help with this article: Nathan Bos, Giulia Cox, Kathleen Hamel, Tracy Hammerman, Joseph Hoffman, Elisabeth Klann, Dave Lyons, Jon Margerum-Leys, and Beth Wilkins. We also want to thank the teachers, administrators and students in the schools in which we are working; we sincerely appreciate their cooperation, their willingness to try something new, and their good humor! We also wish to thank Sara Staebler for her heroic efforts to make sure that the boxes and wires, and relevant infrastructure.... work!

Copyright © 1996 Raven Wallace, Joseph Krajcik, and Elliot Soloway

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