There are lots of places to find information online—the problem is how to gauge the reliability of the information you find. I like Wikipedia as much as anyone, but the grain of salt its openness requires can lend the information a bad taste. Now, at least when it comes to the life sciences, there’s a new, free resource that’s about as reliable as you could want. Nature Publishing Group, which publishes the highly-regarded international scientific journal Nature, is branching out into education with a website called Scitable.
Scitable, which launched in January, is aimed primarily at college and later students and who need help with their classwork. According to Vikram Savkar, who heads up the new Nature Education effort (and who, coincidentally, was in my graduating class in high school), students will typically follow the same approach most of us do when looking for information: Go to Google, and often click through to Wikipedia. Scitable aims to provide a source for information, backed by the century-plus of credibility the Nature name brings to the table.
For now, Scitable covers only genetics, but will be gradually expanding over the next few years to cover the other life sciences, such as botany and molecular biology. It’s easily searchable and personalizable, designed to provide relatively high-level instruction with the ability to drill down to articles on every subtopic. Any questions not answered by the articles can be posed to a panel of educators and researchers via the site’s Ask an Expert feature. The site allows educators to create “coursepacks” for their students to facilitate their use of the site, and even provides a networking feature so students around the world can find others working on similar topics.
I wouldn’t suggest sending most kids to the site, as they’re unlikely to grasp most of the information. But in the several hours I’ve spent on the site I’ve learned quite a bit about genetics, and I think it could be an invaluable resource for me when my kids hit high school and need help with their science homework, as I know I will need help in order not to look foolish. And of course, as a geek, I’m a big fan of knowledge for its own sake.
Scitable has a way to go before it becomes a thorough resource for science students and educators, restricted as it currently is to genetics. But it’s off to a great start, and I for one hope that it starts a trend of credible reference material being made available online for free.