Panning for e-gold

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERASometimes finding information of real value on the Internet resembles the search for gold. A shiny nugget in the stream catches the eye of a lucky person and news spreads like wildfire. Soon crowds spend long hours filtering the water for the tiniest specks of gold dust. However, usually only a few find enough gold to make a living. It is the people who supply the food and equipment for the prospectors that strike it rich.

E-gold should be easier to uncover than attempting to find the real thing as depicted by the TV show Gold Rush. However, new ideas for using the Internet are quickly imitated or sometimes deceitfully lifted by claim-jumpers to make someone else rich (Ever hear of the lawsuit filled life of Steve Zuckerberg? [1]) Search engines and social networks multiply because those companies that take on the mammoth task of helping us navigate and communicate with each other on the Internet tend to make the most profit.

Still students need to master techniques for locating valued information. Internet searches help students practice use of Boolean logic and evaluate sites for reliability. Recently I was trying to help two students tackle the task for locating their own e-gold  for biology classes. The first one was trying to find specific answers for a fill-in-the-blank worksheet. My guidance to search for the most unique word in each blank riddled line was like trying to teach a student to separate the shinier pyrite (fool’s gold) from the real thing. For example, if the name of the particular scientist was lacking, searching for “discovers DNA replication” would bring a flood of articles about the process of replication or the discoverers of DNA. Many were lengthy and far above a high school freshman’s reading level – especially hard for a person whose second language was English.

So we established a routine. Look in Wikipedia for the main item, and then search the page (using control-F or find function) to locate the other specific word(s). This worked until she tried to fathom what biological discovery Barbara McClintock made with corn. The struggling student could only find the word “corn” on the caption of a photograph in her biography.  My quick scan showed the word “maize” was used instead.  However, this particularly talented Nobel prize winner had uncovered many things concerning recombination, ethnobiology etc. using maize, so it was still a guess as to the particular discovery that the teacher wanted on the worksheet.  Teachers should be aware that the Internet contains so much data that most searches will yield more than one answer and should be open-ended.

On the other hand if a student is trying to find data to support or disprove a particular theory there is a price to pay. An upper level biology student who wanted background information for an experiment using FCF Blue 1 to stain plant cells during growth found that research articles on the Internet were too expensive. (According to Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz who was indicted for hacking into JSTOR, this money is used to line the pockets of the corporations rather than the researchers.[2]) One of the first things any educational institution needs to usher its students into the information age is to shell out the money for an adequate database – unless they wish to encourage a generation of hackers, the path followed by many stars of the information age including Steve Jobs [3].

Photo by Nate Cull, CC 2.0

[1]Wikipedia article Mark Zuckerberg (accessed February 5, 2013)
[2] Pearce, M. Reddit cofounder Swartz struggled with prosecution before suicide Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013,
[3] Crawford, A. Origins, Smithsonian, February 2013, p. 15

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