Improving Student Ocean Science Literacy Through Collaboration with a Librarian

LAURA A. GUERTIN ( is a professor of Earth science at Penn State Brandywine, Media, Pennsylvania; NINA CLEMENTS ( is a reference and instruction librarian, also at Penn State Brandywine, Media, Pennsylvania.

Tapping into librarian expertise can enhance instruction toward ocean science literacy in that a librarian can bring ideas and resources to the oceanography classroom that a geoscience instructor might not consider. Consulting with a librarian can lead to the development of assignments that teach students skills that are independent of a discipline, and that they can utilize beyond any individual course. These collaborations promote development of information literacy as well as ocean science literacy among students.

Co-author Laura Guertin teaches an introductory-level oceanography lab course for non-science majors ("The Sea Around Us"). The overarching course goal is for students to understand fundamental concepts of ocean science, communicate examples of interactions between humans and oceans and make informed decisions relating to big ideas associated with Ocean Literacy Principles (Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence et al., 2013). One of the secondary course goals is for students to be able to read, interpret, and assess news articles with respect to ocean events or oceanography in general. Guertin enlisted the assistance of librarian and co-author, Nina Clements, to develop a classroom approach and identify the tools needed for a semester-long assignment to achieve these goals.

We wanted students to locate, evaluate, and create an annotated bibliography from fifteen recently published ocean science articles written for a general audience (not in peer-reviewed journals) to emphasize the currency and relevance of the content they were learning. Clements was able to add a number of things to the oceanography course that were not part of Guertin's instruction in prior semesters, yet were important in helping students reach course learning objectives.

Instruction on library databases. University libraries have subscriptions to numerous extensive databases and services, as well as current offerings and new resources that instructors might not be aware of. Clements met with Guertin's class to carry out an overview of the most common library databases and review search terms that would be appropriate for ocean science topics. For example, Guertin never knew about her own university's access to a global newspaper database, Access World News, which Clements reviewed to show students how to find articles published from international news outlets on ocean topics. Clements also showed students how to set up a Google Alert to be emailed links to results Google finds on a specific ocean topic for which a student signed up.

Instruction on evaluating resources. Although Earth science faculty instruct students at all levels to use caution when searching for science content online, librarians can provide students with some specific strategies to evaluating print and online sources. For example, to help students examine whether information found online would be considered reliable, Clements instructed students on the CRAP (Currency, Reliability, Authority, Purpose/Point of View) test (Keene Info Lit Bank, 2011). Clements then found an example of an invalid online source, the website for the Pacific Northwest tree octopus (, and took students through the CRAP worksheet. Students utilized this worksheet repeatedly throughout the semester as they gathered ocean science articles.

Instruction on citation management. Earth science instructors often encourage students to keep their notes and materials organized when working on a course project, but will not typically show students the tools that exist to help organize their resources. Instruction librarians can point students toward tools and services offered though the university. As part of their library instruction, students learned how to use Zotero as their online citation management tool for their ocean science annotated bibliography. This free web-based tool allows students to not only keep track of the current event news stories they have evaluated with the CRAP test in their online library, but also include article annotations and notes about which Ocean Literacy Principles relate to the article and why. The online library for each student was shared with Guertin so she could check on student progress throughout the semester.

Several comments provided by students address both the value of increasing their ocean science literacy as well as increasing their ability to develop their search strategies and manage resources:

  • The focus of my work personally was to develop a better understanding of what is going on with our oceans right now. While we were permitted to use articles dating back to 2010, most of my articles were more current, from this year, about interesting technologies or developments.
  • I noticed that my process [searching for articles] definitely changed throughout the semester. At first, I wanted to just get it done and was kind of uninterested in what I was reading, but as I learned more I become more and more interested and became more specific with my searches.
  • Our classes teach us a lot, but they can only teach us so much and only for the duration of the semester; eventually, we will be left to our devices to find information. While this project was specifically focused on the ocean, it did help build a good foundation for research in the future.
  • The best thing about this assignment was learning how to use Zotero because it allowed me to cite works instantly. Since the beginning of this project I have used Zotero for all my other classes. Overall, this assignment has prepared me for college research.

The collaborative relationship between Guertin and Clements has extended beyond the oceanography course. The approach of addressing science literacy through information literacy is also being used in an introductory-level Earth science course ("Environment Earth"), with the focus on the Earth Science Literacy Principles (Earth Science Literacy Initiative, 2009). Given the success we have had with this approach, we encourage Earth science faculty to meet with their campus librarians to review their existing course goals and see if there are any campus or virtual resources to enhance Earth science instruction, especially when it comes to science literacy in students. Although this article focuses on an example from higher education, the expertise and knowledge of librarians is also valuable in grades K-12 when teaching approaches to finding/evaluating resources.


Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence, National Geographic Society, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and College of Exploration (2013), Ocean literacy: The essential principles of ocean sciences for learners of all ages, version 2, a jointly published brochure. Available at

Earth Science Literacy Initiative (2009), Earth science literacy principles: The big ideas and supporting concepts of Earth science. Available at

Keene Info Lit Bank (2011), CRAP test. Adapted from:


Access World News, from NewsBank:

Google Alert: