Oh, Wonderopolis! (or how I use a site intended for children to make college students better searchers)

by Carrie Dunham-LaGree

I’ve written here about how much search fascinates me and my personal devotion to A Google a Day. As an academic instruction librarian, I’ve had some success incorporating these quizzes into instruction, but often the savvy students stumble upon an online forum with the exact answer without going through the steps. Lately, I’ve turned to Wonderopolis to inspire search topics for instruction sessions. Wonderopolis bills itself as “a place where wonder and learning are nurtured through the power of discovery, creativity and imagination.” The target audience for Wonderopolis isn’t college students, but I’ve had good luck incorporating the site into library instruction session. How?

One of the things I like best about Wonderopolis is how they address seemingly simple questions. Yesterday’s question posed “how many stairs in a flight?”  I like to begin instruction sessions by figuring out what students already know and to learn more about their search strategies. I used to use Poll Everywhere to ask students where their first stop for research usually is. Now, I ask them a question inspired by Wordopolis. At my library, I’m fortunate enough to have an electronic classroom where I do most of my information literacy instruction in the library itself. There are twelve computers in the room, and we typically have 19-24 students in information literacy sessions. Even though I give students the option to go anywhere in the library, they almost always all stay in the room and use a computer. Inevitably, there are students who go directly to Wikipedia and Google, but I probably would too. What I find more interesting and illuminating are the students who alter their normal behavior because they’re in class. These students go to a wide variety of places, and often they don’t make any sense: the library catalog, JSTOR, SuperSearch (our discovery service), the library’s website search itself. Their reasoning? It’s almost always “my professor told me to use that for my last assignment” or “the other librarian told me to use it once.” What these students so often help me illustrate is one of the most important concepts for students to understand: sources may be excellent, but finding the right source for the right purpose is key. I also typically pull a couple of relevant print reference sources to show them as we discuss the multiple ways to search for the answer(s).

But back to Wonderopolis. The accompanying answer to “How many stairs in a flight?” includes three key items: a video (of a Volkswagon ad featuring piano stairs), an explanation of the question’s answer, and “Wonder words to know and use.” Using these wonder words is an excellent segue into controlled vocabulary. Some would make a search easier (flight, stairway, staircase, etc.), while others appear in the answer but don’t actually answer the question (calories, etc.) Having students discuss these words and which they could use when finding information can yield fascinating results about how and why they search.

Thanks to Wonderopolis, I’ve demonstrated a variety of sources, both ones they’re already familiar with and ones new to them; search strategies; and controlled vocabulary. Plus, I get to show this video:

Now tell me: what ice breakers do you use in library instruction?

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One thought on “Oh, Wonderopolis! (or how I use a site intended for children to make college students better searchers)

  1. Pingback: Chasing Reference: One Year Later | Chasing Reference

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