on the amazing (data)race!

Databases. So much great stuff! So little use.

Alas …

Think about it, though. If you were twelve, thirteen, or fourteen and had access to Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go and all they offer with so little effort, would you be inclined to use databases just because a librarian who grew up in the “olden days” stood up at the front of the room and told you that databases give you access to high quality edited and/or curated content? I don’t know about you, but I know I wouldn’t. I’m certain that twelve-year-old me would stick with the tools that served me “well enough” with so little effort. That’s not being lazy. That’s being smart.

So, other than sit back with a ginormous glass of merlot or crawling under our desks in a fetal position, what’s a middle school librarian to do?

Middle schoolers love games. While we are time zones away from incorporating anything even remotely resembling “gamification” as a pedagogical philosophy driving our information literacy instruction, as middle school librarians we are not above exploiting our students’ love of good old fashioned low-risk fun and games to engage our charges! And, okay, if we’re going to be fully honest, candy doesn’t hurt either!

We introduce seventh graders (we are a 7-12 school) in our Library and Technology 7 course to databases and database searching with a class game called, The Amazing (Data)Race! (Get it? Database … (Data)Race … 7th graders don’t get it, but I find it enormously entertaining so that’s what it is called … LOL).

As an introductory lesson to databases our objectives for the lesson are:


Lesson objectives as presented to students.


Here’s how it works.

We explain what a database is with a mind map of the Internet and of databases’ place in it. In previous lessons our seventh graders learn about search engines, web indexing, and they have learned that the World Wide Web and the Internet are not synonymous. Building on these concepts, the main take away for seventh graders in this lesson is, “When you are searching Google or Bing, the stuff in databases doesn’t come up in your results list because it is not part of the Internet indexed by search engines.”

Photo Dec 02, 12 46 37 PM

A mind map for seventh graders.


As an introduction, we teach our students that when database searching you need to:

  • Determine the scope of the database
  • Search with keywords combining terms in separate fields
  • Filter and/or limit your search and its results

We present a sample challenge that we use to demonstrate the process of searching, browsing results lists, and refining searches–repeating and refining the process until we find the content we need. Here is our sample challenge:


For the curious, this was the day the Board of Trustees announced plans to merge with the Harvard School and The Harvard-Westlake School was born.


After this initial demonstration, we present the first challenge and teams of students work together to locate an answer in one of our middle school databases.


The challenge as it is presented.



The hint given if it is needed.



The answer that is given after teams have submitted their answers.


When teams of students locate their answers, they submit their answers via Google Form.





Time stamped responses of student teams.


Kids have a blast! For no other reason than having a lot of left over Halloween candy, we started rewarding winning teams with a piece of candy–Pavlov’s dogs style. Teams select their candy, but are not allowed to eat it. As the game progresses, the desire to finish first typically drives teams to start submitting shoddy answers so we play Jepardy!-style and wrong (or more often incomplete) answers result in having to put your candy back in the basket! Raising the stakes in this way makes seventh graders scream and whine a lot, but it sure does make it a lot more fun! And puts a premium on quality rather than speed.

After each challenge, a member of the winning team comes up to the podium and demonstrates the search strategy and process used to find the answer.

Yes, in a pedagogically perfect world, this lesson would be followed immediately with a “real” assignment from a content area class that allowed students to apply the skills taught. We’re working on creating our perfect information literacy instruction utopia, but alas … utopia continues to be a work in progress. They do, however, get to use their newly acquired knowledge on databases about two weeks after the lesson when they launch into a research project with their history classes.

The Amazing (Data)Race started life as a paper-based scavenger hunt. The search challenges were developed by our head libraraian, Susan Kallok, and my colleague, Karen Wareham. The full Google Presentation is available here. Links, of course, route through our EZproxy account so you’ll have to adapt it to your needs.

Final though for this month … I’m going to Dallas!!!  I’m hoping to meet you in the middle!!!

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