Google Custom Search Refines Research Skills

Teachers train students to find what they need without sifting through results on millions of sites.

by Tanya Roscorla / August 10, 2009 0

If you type in “king snake” to Google’s regular search engine, you’ll find about 12.4 million hits, and not all of them focus on the reptile. That’s a problem for educators who want to teach their students how to research online, but they’re addressing it by creating Google custom search engines. 

Last year, Darcy Sanderson set up a wiki on animals for the science teachers at J.T. Henley Middle School in Virginia. She came up with a list of five to seven good animal Web pages for the engine so that the kids could zero in on reliable sites that gave them the information they needed, said Sanderson, who worked as a curriculum and technology integration partner as well as an algebra teacher at the time.

“I think it helped them in the long run,” Sanderson said, “and if we hadn’t done that, I think the searching would have been a much more tedious and a longer process.”

The animal custom search engine allowed kids to research on quality sites without spending six hours learning how to evaluate them, which thrilled parents such as Melissa Techman, whose daughter used it in her class.

“Once you explain to teachers and parents what it is, they love it, because it’s almost like training wheels for researchers,” Techman said. “They’re getting the good research experience, but they’re not spending a lot of time looking for sources.”

As the technology lead teacher and librarian for Broadus Wood Elementary School, Techman wants to create a fifth-grade tech squad this year that will work with her on lunch breaks a few times a week to build custom searches that they can share with their classes.

At Chocowinity Primary School in North Carolina, fourth-grade teacher Kelly Hines plans to set up a custom search engine this year so that her students won’t get bogged down by Web sites that are too advanced in vocabulary and context.

“When we study magnetism and electricity or animal habitats, we’ll be able to kind of just narrow the focus of what they are researching and make the Internet a more manageable place for them to navigate,” Hines said.

Search engines create safe, quality learning experiences

Custom searches help students become better researchers, and they act as a scaffold to weed out some of the irrelevant and inappropriate information, said Lucy Gray, a technology integration specialist at the Center for Elementary Math and Science Education at the University of Chicago.

“There’s a mentality around effective searching that has to be taught kindergarten through 12th grade,” Gray said. “It’s not something that you just do one lesson on and then everybody’s good on search. There’s a lot of critical thinking that goes into being an effective searcher.”

She has made more than 20 engines and has learned to maximize the power of the search engines as a Google Certified Teacher. For example, instead of finding all the sites for the engine herself, she can invite other contributors. When she finds a site that she likes, she can add it to some of her search engines by clicking on Google Marker from her toolbar.

Creating a search engine doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s more effective than searching the whole Web, said Obe Hostetter, an instructional technology resource teacher at Rockingham County Public Schools in Virginia.

“This is actually better than putting things in a bookmarking Web site because then it’s searchable,” Hostetter said, “and you don’t have to remember the tag or the word or which category you put it under.”

Thousands of teachers throughout Virginia use one of Hostetter’s custom search engines to find lessons related to state standards. They can type in topics and even specify what kind of file they want. The one thing that’s missing from Google is a customized image search engine to keep inappropriate images out, he said.

But the search engines do keep students from finding inappropriate sites on the whole Web, said Cindy Lane, an adjunct professor, Google Certified Teacher and instructional technology specialist from St. Louis. One of her students looked up “black holes” in a regular search, and you can just imagine what that child found, she said.

She taught a four-week class this summer at Southwest Baptist University for K-12 educators on Google applications, and she focused on searching during one of those weeks. All of the students created custom search engines, but many of them said they had never heard about it before.

“You would think teachers would know about all of the applications that make their lives easier in their classrooms, but unless they take classes or they go to technology conferences or they have some really good PD [professional development] already imbedded in their schools, it’s a hit and miss kind of thing,” Lane said, “which is unfortunate.”

Check out these resources:
Create a Custom Search Engine (from Google)
Google Teacher Academy Resources (from Google)
Guide to Create Google Custom Search Engine (Word document from Rockingham County Public Schools)
Google Web Search – Classroom Lessons and Resources (from Google)
Create Your Own Student-Friendly Search Engine with Google
(from the blog EdTech Gold Rush)

Google Custom Searches
Math Search
Science Search
Sites for Teachers

K12 Schools Search Engine
Sheridan School Research Sites

Featured examples: Google Picks

Mrs. Gray’s Research Sites for Kids
The Best of Educational Technology
Four Engines used by Virginia teachers
Mrs. Reilly’s Web sites for "A Long Way from Chicago"