How do you begin researching a new topic? Do you reach for your phone, type in a couple of words and hope for the best? As tempting and convenient it is to jump right into the water and “Google it”, there are benefits for students to start research in a library database. 

Many s
chool districts like ours subscribe to a group of Gale resources, a large academic publisher.  Research in Context is a newcomer to this go-to library staple and is a database designed to support middle school  learners. (See an introduction to Research in Context by Gale Cengage below my comments.)

The differences between resources available online are not always obvious to students. In fact, digital information sources can appear very similar, but be worlds apart in quality.    Here’s some concrete imagery I use to contrast the two research experiences for students: 

A subscription database is like an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s a good place to learn to swim.

There are lifeguards (the gatekeepers which review information before it’s published, such as editors, fact-checkers, authors with reputations to protect).

The focus is on swimming vs. boogie-boarding, fishing, etc. (Focus is largely on informational writing, which is helpful for learning a new topic).

There are floaties to help you swim (kid-friendly writing; reading level filters).

The areas of the pool are clearly marked (easier  to distinguish between different formats like magazines, reference articles, news, primary and secondary sources, etc).

There are staff members ready to offer up a set of flippers to speed up your pace (such as focused, reviewed writing; advanced search tools; subject terms/ keywords  embedded in databases to help you locate other sources).   

The open internet is like the ocean.

There are lifeguards (gatekeepers)  in some areas along the coast (recommended websites; subject directories, .edu and .gov sites; organizations with a brick and mortar presence and strong reputations).

The ocean, like the internet,  is home to many different activities besides swimming. Fishing, boating, illegal dumping, etc. all occur in in this broad, deep and unregulated environment. A variety of friendly and fierce organisms also live here. (Swimmers in the internet encounter a wide range of information quality.  Trash and treasure float side by side.) 

There is no focus to the information  (Informational, entertainment, novelty, commercial, recreational, strange and wild information all share space, organized mostly in order of popularity, not by quality of information).

There are no floaties (No reading level filters; information is written in a range of complexity, from elementary level all the way up to doctoral dissertations. Do you have your PhD degree yet?).

The ocean is not clearly marked (Many beginning researchers tread water for hours, scrolling past related but not relevant sites. Others are swept out to sea by strong, distracting currents of information). 

You have to keep your wits about you as you peer into the depths. What was that?!  (It takes time and critical thinking to distinguish between different types of information and evaluate the author(s) who produce it. This can slow down your ability to find relevant, focused information fast). 

I may have stretched my analogy past the point break, if I can misuse a surfing term. Yet, kids will likely remember the images. The fact is, there are amazing, relevant, high-quality sources published on the internet. The goal is to find the right one at the right time in an overwhelming sea of information. Your middle school learner will be much more able to recognize the right information if he or she has a solid introduction to a topic first through a library database like Research in Context. (Hint: look for a topic overview or an introduction in reference categories)

Library media specialists work with content-area teachers to help students develop information literacy skills at all levels. In middle and high school, students progress in their ability to evaluate online resources of every form, using frameworks such as C.A.R.S. Our efforts in teaching kids to “swim” are made more powerful by your support at home. See here for a tip sheet from Common Sense Media to help kids recognize quality websites. And before they hit Google, encourage them to search a library database first. And, depending on the topic, don’t overlook the tried and true book.

Researching, Middle School Style

Staff Writer, Gale Cengage

Age can have a lot to do with the way we learn. For example, research resources geared toward a high school level student shouldn’t mirror those geared toward a sixth grader and vice versa. Say your tween is doing a report on the topic of abolition and Frederick Douglass. Where should they start to find age appropriate information on the subject? Well, Research In Context, a resource specially created for students at the middle school level, is a great jumping off point.

With an interface that delivers the highly visual design and navigation preferred by younger users combined with the authoritative content and user-focused tool set needed to support middle school assignment and coursework, Research In Context is ideal for students in grades 6 to 8.  The research tool is simple to use. Plus, any user with Google or Microsoft Account credentials will benefit from single sign-on capabilities. After initial authentication through the library, there’s no need to remember a separate password! 

Working on the go is also an option with the tool’s mobile responsive design. And, the map tool delivers strong visual callouts for users accessing maps on mobile devices. For example, a student could type, “abolition” and “Frederick Douglass” in the search box and a variety of images and information on the topics would be displayed with content written explicitly for middle schools.

Social studies and world history aren’t the only topics Research In Context covers. The resource tool is cross-disciplinary in nature—spanning literature, science, and social studies. You can expect to find reliable and up-to-date content from leading sources like National Geographic, Scholastic, NPR, NASA, AP Video News, and more.  Research In Context sources are aligned with national and state curriculum standards for grades 6 to 12 in language arts, social studies, and science. 

Who knew a research tool could be so specifically tailored to an age group? With a resource like this, middle school students are able to tackle a wide range of subjects from an abolitionist leader like Frederick Douglass to climate change and global warming, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. Experience Research In Context for yourself at this link or for more information, contact Mrs. Betts at
A note from Mrs. Betts for R15 Parents:
Click here to go to the MMS LMC Gale Databases > Choose Research in Context from the bottom of the list. Contact me if you need the log-in credentials.