November 17, 2017

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Reaching a Range of Users, from the Youngest to the Oldest | Reference Online

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This month, we highlight databases for both the oldest and the youngest patrons.
Sparticl’s in-depth, well-designed, and free resource brings together the best science material on the Web. With World Book’s Early World of Learning, we spotlight a resource for those users new to reading, the Web, and information in general. Whether your users are sophisticated scientists-to-be or readers finding their footing, you’ll find something here to meet your needs.

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Sparticl: The Best Science on the Web

Created by the renowned Twin Cities Public Television and sponsored by 3M, this wide-ranging, handy resource is intended to bring the best of science information on the Web to a central hub where teens can tap into a vast wealth of filtered educational material that includes videos, games, articles, and experiments. The best part? It’s free.

Grade Level 8 & up (only those 13 and older may create accounts).

Cost Free

Ease of Use, Visual Appeal, and Content Spacticl’s homepage combines a vibrant, eye-catching display with a functional, user-friendly interface. Across the top of the homepage is a basic search bar that asks, “What are you curious about?” A search of “Hubble Space Telescope” returns a variety of results drawn from such sources as the Space Telescope Science Institute (which manages Hubble), Space.com, NOVA/PBS, and National Geographic. Along the left navigation bar is a “filter by type” option for zeroing in on videos, images, or hands-on activities, to name a few. By clicking on one of the primary search results, teens are redirected to the site with the Sparticl header retained.
Back on the homepage, navigation tabs across the top of the page provide information under the headings “Living Things,” “Matter & Energy,” “Tech & Innovation,” “Body & Brain,” “Earth & Space,” and “Explore.” An example of the vast array of content is found under the “Earth & Space” tab, which reveals subcategories such as “Solar System,” “Atmosphere & Weather,” “Oceans & Water,” and “Rocks & Minerals.” The subheading “Oceans & Water” includes the alphabetized subjects “Aquifers,” “Great Lakes,” “Marine Ecosystems,” “Oceanography,” “Rivers & Streams,” “Water Cycles,” and “Wetlands.” Clicking on the subject “Oceanography” leads to a page called “The Best on the Web about Oceanography.” Here, users encounter an excellent selection of webpages devoted strictly to that topic. Also included along the right navigation tabs is a “You Might Also Like” listing of subjects and tabs for sharing on sites like Twitter or Facebook. On the homepage, the explore tab allows teens to do just that: find some of the best scientific content on the web, from “Current Events” to “Controversies.”
Sparticl also provides links to an assortment of high quality videos, including those on the National Geographic and British Broadcasting Company web sites. Also included is a collection of games for kids, such as the ever difficult “Fly to Mars,” in which players are asked to launch a spacecraft for landing on the Red Planet (a feat more difficult than one might expect), and “Solar System Memory Game,” which requires players to match 12 different pairs.
The most novel aspect of the site is the ability to create a user profile. Here, teens can create an avatar of themselves, earn badges and points, and share and comment on particular sites.

Resources for Teachers and Librarians That all the sources are chosen by the experts at PBS should give teachers and librarians some peace of mind when releasing students onto research projects. As stated on their “About Us” page, the database is “designed to be a showcase for the best STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) content” on the Web.

Verdict Sparticl is a welcome tool for science educators in middle and high school classrooms. The database offers first-rate, screened materials in an engaging format that allows users to examine a multitude of topics and learn what can be challenging content through serendipitous exploration while enjoying themselves. And did we mention the price? — Brian Odom, Huntsville, AL

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Early World of Learning

This resource introduces children to basic concepts—colors, shapes, numbers, animals, and transportation, touching on detailed reading skills, like vowel sounds, and some logic and memory activities such as sorting and matching. Though narrow in scope, with some flaws, this database has a few pluses, too.

Grade Level PreS-Gr 1

Cost Based on population served.

Ease of Use, Visual Appeal, and Content Featuring moving clouds, a blinking frog prince, and a wide expanse of green, the design of the homepage quickly establishes this database as a resource for children who may not be independent readers yet and who have both feet squarely planted in the fairy tale world. In the upper right-hand corner, there are four large, clear icons that give users the options to “Read,” “Play,” “Watch,” and “Print & Do.” The organization, by activity type rather than by subject matter, gives the database a gamelike feel ideal for young users. Navigation is easy and gratifying, though there are some issues with categorization.
“Read” gives kids the option to interact digitally with books through three options: “Trek’s Travels,” a group of stories that let kids learn about colors, numbers, and shapes with a scarecrow named Trek; “Welcome to Reading,” a collection of various stories featuring Trek and a female scarecrow, Taffy; and “Know It,” a compendium of books featuring nonfiction information about animals and insects.
There’s a slight organizational issue here: it’s unclear why some Trek stories are under “Trek’s Travels” and others under “Welcome to Reading.” The design is lackluster: the clunky Trek is a less than appealing character, and Taffy rarely appears at all, giving the stories a male-centric vibe. Further, the highly meticulous illustration style doesn’t translate well to computer or tablet formats.
Luckily, “Know It” is snazzier—the animal icons are more stylish, computer-generated cartoons. When kids choose an animal, they’ll find themselves on pages featuring old-fashioned illustrations, but the technical drawings (demonstrating such details as beaver lodge construction) are excellent. One downside, though, is that the videos are displayed as soon children enter the “Read” section, which may tempt them to stop reading before they’ve even begun.
The “Play” option is just as accessible as “Read.” Though the games, too, suffer from an uneven design style, they have plenty of kid appeal, inviting children to put stories in chronological order, fill in the blanks, sort vowels, or play concentration games. Engaging and enriching, these games are winners.
Only the films encompass a more diverse subject matter. They are sorted by clickable topics: “People,” “Places,” “Earth,” “Getting Around,” and “Machines.” Oddly, there is more depth and sophistication in the videos than in any of the reading options. The dramatic photo of a dolphin plunging into water (for “Animals”) and a child laughing while covered in paint (“Sports and Hobbies)” will pull kids in far more powerfully than the Trek icons.
Finally, there’s “Print and Do,” a resource for teachers or students comprised simply of a collection of coloring book pages. These offer a paint-by-numbers approach, asking students to use green wherever the number four appears, for example. Although “Print and Do” might emphasize basic reading, color, and number skills, it is in no way an innovative teacher resource.

A Closer Look at Content Here, children can learn or practice colors, numbers, shapes, and sounds and can be read to, but there seems little benefit to having these experiences digitally rather than in person. When it comes to the books, the narrators do a solid job, reading in a variety of accents, as well as in Spanish, a potentially valuable feature. The read-along function shows words highlighted as the person speaks the word, inviting children to follow along with the narrator. Unfortunately, not all children will read as quickly as the computer encourages them to, so new readers may feel inadequate. However, kids can choose their reading level, A, B, or C: a nice bonus.
The nonfiction reading employs more creative, interactive utilities, such as question marks that users can click on to learn more. Children will discover that squirrels’ tails help them keep balance and that moss keeps their nests warm. The writing here is descriptive and vivid. However, there’s no option to click on images for more detailed views—a visual discovery process that could be exciting for this age group.

Verdict The best parts of this database—videos and games—can be found for free online or on most smartphones but perhaps not quite as well-organized. This resource occupies a unique niche. It’s a solid product for children who are a little bit past enjoying Eric Carle and Sandra Boynton online games but still too young for Scholastic Go! (formerly Grolier’s), a dense collection of academic material. Although this is a less-than-stellar package overall, librarians might find the games and videos, as well as the nonfiction sections, worthwhile.—Jess deCourcy Hinds, Bard High School Early College, Queens, NY

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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