Student Research Tools Online

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2330, 2005-07-29, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website.

Students in grades K-12 are increasingly using computers — both at home and in the classroom — for running educational software, writing reports, and other activities that take advantage of the computers' processing, storage, and printing capabilities. With the proliferation of Internet access, students can also take advantage of the wealth of online educational and reference resources. These can save the students considerable time when doing research for school reports and other assignments that require gathering and verifying facts not covered in their local materials.

The valuable information is certainly out there; but the biggest challenge of all is actually finding it without going down too many search engine blind alleys. This is especially true in the case of children doing the searching, particularly when not supervised by an adult. They can get frustrated easily when the search engine results are composed mostly of links to sites that are unrelated or have no freely available educational material.

Yet that is probably the least of our worries, given the nature of what those children might find in those dark "alleys" in cyberspace. After all, a student writing a term paper on the United Nations, might do a search for "bigger member countries", and get some unexpected results. Fortunately, parents at home can employ many of the same content filtering safeguards that are used on school networks, to prevent young Web surfers from bumping into adult content. Kids Domain, for instance, has an extensive list of safe surfing products, at http://www.kidsdomain.com/brain/computer/surfing/nannyware.html.

There are countless research tools on the Web that would be of value to young students — far more than we can cover here. But let's take a look at some major categories, including those that students turn to most frequently for writing papers.

Maps and Atlases

Geography and history are just two subject areas in school that can truly benefit from the use of maps and atlases, which unfortunately are in short supply in the average U.S. classroom, to say nothing of the average U.S. home. This is where the graphical focus of the Web, in combination with interactive websites, can really pay off. Online maps and world views are usually designed so that the user can easily zoom in and out, move in four or eight different directions, and in some cases specify labels, demarcations, and coloring to indicate different categories of information, such as political, topographic, etc.

The Infoplease Atlas page has a clickable world map that divides up the earth's land masses into 13 regions. Each of the regional maps shows the countries and their major cities, with links that allow the student to drill down further. Also on that page, one will find links to Infoplease's extensive map index, with sections for continents, regions, countries, U.S. states, Canadian provinces, territories and dependencies, and even proposed countries. There are printable maps in PDF format, showing continents, U.S. regions, and U.S. states — the last one in three flavors: physiography, or with or without state capitals.

Infoplease's motto, "All the knowledge you need", may be over-the-top, but their country data is not underwhelming. Every country on the planet, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, has its own Web page, detailing the country's statistics, geography, brief history, country flag, and a link to a full map. Also of interest to students writing on international matters, is the "World Statistics" section, containing a plethora of economic, political, social, and population data, as well as information on wars and other military conflict all over the world.

Speaking of world domination, Microsoft's MSN Encarta has an interactive atlas that allows the student to rotate the virtual globe about 15 degrees per mouse click. Major countries and cities are clearly labeled, and three map styles (comprehensive, time zones, and ecology) can be chosen with the free version of Encarta. Fifteen more are available with a subscription. It even has driving directions within 20 countries, though it did not allow me to plan a road trip from San Diego to Santiago (Chile).

For an online atlas that would probably be more valuable to a student, the National Geographic Society's MapMachine has countless terrific maps, in addition to photo galleries, as well as country and culture profiles. Their maps are organized by region and theme. The regional maps are grouped into continents, countries (physical and political), Asian regions, and oceans. That last category is sadly neglected by most online atlases. The thematic maps could be extremely useful to students, especially if they are researching intercontinental and international topics, such as animals, languages, and religions.

Encyclopedias

One of the most useful types of books for doing student research is, without question, the encyclopedia. Most quality libraries still house enormous, multi-volume (and even multi-shelf) encyclopedias, such as the granddaddy of them all, Encyclopaedia Britannica. But now much of that information can be obtained for free on the Internet, by clicking a mouse instead of weight-lifting a foot-crushing book.

The Columbia Encyclopedia is well-known and well-respected, as a reliable source of material on a wide range of topics. Articles from their sixth and current edition can be found on at least two websites: The version at Bartleby.com offers nearly 51,000 entries, comprising over 6 million words and 80,000 hypertext cross-references. The version over at Encyclopedia.com has more than 57,000 entries.

Also worth checking out is the Free Dictionary Encyclopedia, which may be confusing at first because it is much more search-based, and does not have alphabetical and thematic categories. But it does feature a dictionary, various tools, and for each day of the week, an article, a word, a quote, an historical event, and a celebrity's birthday.

Perhaps one indication of a difference between the old-style Columbia Encyclopedia and the newer and Internet-only Free Dictionary Encyclopedia, is their choice of birthday boys: On the day that I was researching this article, the former encyclopedia chose the outstanding Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, while the latter chose rapper Ice Cube.

No discussion of online encyclopedias would be complete without mentioning the remarkable Wikipedia, which has over 1.4 million articles (combining all of those from its many languages). In English alone, it offers more than 576,000 entries. What makes Wikipedia most unique — aside from its phenomenal breadth of coverage — is that its articles are written by lay people from all over the world, and not by a select group of academics, as is the norm with traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia also has featured articles, selected anniversaries, and discussion forums on their site.

The resources listed here are but a small portion of those on the Internet that can be utilized by students of all ages. Even though some of the most famous sources of information — such as Encyclopaedia Britannica — can only be viewed online by paying a fee, there are so many worthy yet free ones, that most students should be able to find everything that they need without breaking a sweat or breaking the bank.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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