Tuesday, April 8, 2008 - 07:01
I love using molecular structures as teaching tools. They're beautiful, they're easy to obtain, and working with them is fun. But working with molecular structures as an educators can present some challenges. The biggest problem is that many of the articles describing the structures are not accessible, particularly those published by the ACS (American Chemical Society). I'm hoping that the new NIH Open Access policy will include legacy publications and increase access to lots of publications about structures. It would also be great if other funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation, would follow suit and require their grantees to make articles open access as well. When I wrote the "Exploring DNA Structures" lab manual, I also made a CD with lots of structures that served as "unknowns." This was intentional, on my part, because I thought the unknowns would make good research projects for students. The students could follow the links to the structure and read (or skim) the publication to find out what the structure was supposed to show and what hypothesis the authors were trying to test. After the manual was published though, I heard from some college instructors asking me if I could tell them what the structures were and what they did. I spent a lot of time working to answer those questions and ended up compiling several pages of information about those structures in the instructor guide. In doing so, I also learned that many of the papers weren't accessible. Students at some universities might have access, but not students at community colleges or high schools. I finally ended up including a table to show which structures were accompanied by accessible articles so that teachers would know which ones were safe to assign to their students. I don't know how many structural studies are funded by the NIH, and how many are funded by other agencies like the NSF, but I'm sure looking forward to increased access, being able to read more papers, and to assign more of them to students without worrying about whether or not they'll have access.