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BEN: The Biology Branch of the National Science Digital Library

AIBS Eye on Education

Cathy Lundmark

The Biosciences Education Network is "a one-stop shopping area for resources from all digital libraries of BEN partners," explains Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She is lead investigator of the BiosciEdNet (BEN) Collaborative, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and currently comprising 14 scientific societies, or "partners," who are developing educational resource collections for the biological sciences as part of the larger National Science Digital Library (http://nsdl.org).

What makes BEN exceptional, says Terry Woodin, program manager in the Division of Graduate Education, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, at NSF, is that everything in its collection will be peer reviewed. And although different contributors will be adding collections to the library, the originators had the foresight to design the BEN collections for interoperability. Searches conducted through the BEN portal won't be limited to any one collection but will scan all collections simultaneously. To make this concept a reality took every bit of BEN's first two years.

BEN has come a long way since the first planning meeting in 1999, when biology educators, digital library enthusiasts, and NSF representatives met to discuss the process of transforming biology education through accessible, shared digital resources. The primary aim is to serve college and university faculty, but the intended audience keeps expanding to include others, such as professional, medical, graduate, and K-12 preservice educators. By providing an interactive environment for biology educators of all stripes to network and exchange resources, BEN has the potential to spread teaching and learning innovations and speed the process of change.

Transforming biology education hasn't been easy. "It's tough to get faculty to integrate new teaching approaches into their classes," says George. BEN is intended to be a catalyst for change, she explains, providing resources and collaborative exchanges that make it easy for individual faculty members to improve their teaching practices. It is also a catalyst for getting societies together to talk about pedagogy, assessment, interdisciplinary approaches, and, of course, digital libraries for their disciplines.

BEN (www.biosciednet.org) currently houses four digital libraries developed and peer reviewed by four of the collaborative's original partners-American Physiological Society, American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Ecological Society of America (ESA), and AAAS's Signal Transduction Knowledge Environment-and four new partners-American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, Society of Toxicology, and Association for Biology Laboratory Education. For the partners that had already existing collections, linking to the BEN portal meant each object in their collection had to be cataloged; that is, a record about each object had to be generated and tagged according to the BEN metadata specifications. But for those partners just developing a collection and for new additions to existing collections, the tagging is done by the author of each object as part of the submission process.

Since 1997, ASM has been building MicrobeLibrary, a well-populated, peer-reviewed collection with resources for teaching undergraduate science education. The process began well before that, recounts Amy Chang, director of education for ASM, with a preliminary study of what introductory microbiology courses look like at different institutions. After three years of consensus building, ASM arrived at a set of guidelines for a first course in microbiology, but soon realized that the white papers generated by the study just sat on shelves and were of little use unless faculty members were given a way to transfer them into practice. Thus, MicrobeLibrary.org was conceived, and in 2000 it launched. In a recent user review carried out in conjunction with BEN, ASM learned that the most sought-after resources in its collection are visual images (43 percent), followed by articles (34 percent), curriculum resources (10 percent), reviews (8 percent), and submission information (3 percent).

Jason Taylor, director of education for ESA, has been developing EcoEdNet for ecology education while simultaneously working with the BEN collaborative to create the metadata specifications for the portal. Developing a library from scratch is slow going, but with all the thought going into the library up front, the end result will be a valuable collection. One innovation Taylor is tinkering with is an annotation system for resources in the collection, so users can record whether a particular object, an experiment, say, worked well for students, failed altogether, or needed to be modified. The system would also allow exchanges between authors and resource users.

There are as many models for building and sustaining a collection as there are partners in the BEN collaborative. Some societies give educators free access to their collections; others charge user fees for access to some or all of their collections. Although the collections are in different stages of development, members of the collaborative share everything, from templates for submission forms to procedures for peer review, regardless of who is responsible for developing what. In the end, the community that is forming through development of the digital library may well be BEN's greatest legacy.


Cathy Lundmark (e-mail: clundmark@aibs.org) is features editor for BioScience.

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