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Use Unconventional Research Sites to Inspire Students

Posted by on September 9, 2016

26551959 Couple Of Students With Laptop In Library

I read recently that 70% of millennials get their news from Facebook. Really? Isn’t Facebook a place to share personal information, stay in touch with friends and families, post pictures of weddings and birthdays? So why do students turn to it for news? And then, not two days later, I heard Twitter has reclassified their app as a news  purveyor rather than a social media device. Once again: Who gets news from Twitter? Apparently a lot of adults. No surprise news shows are littered with references to listener’s tweets and presidential candidates break stories via their Twitter stream.

One more stat — which may explain the whole social-media-as-news-trend — and then I’ll connect these dots: 60% of people don’t trust traditional news sources. That’s newspapers, evening news, and anything considered ‘mainstream media’. They prefer blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

So when it comes to research, are you still directing kids toward your grandmother’s resources — encyclopedias, reference books, and museums? No doubt, these are excellent sources, but if students aren’t motivated by them, they won’t get a lot out of them. I have a list of eight research sites that walk the line between stodgy (textbooks) and out-there (Twitter and Facebook), designed by their developers with an eye toward enticing students in and then keeping their interest. It’s notable that most are free, but include advertising. The exception is BrainPOP — there are no ads, but it requires a hefty annual fee:



BrainPOP is a collection of three-five minute animated movies, learning games, quizzes, and interactive activities for grades 3-8 addressing a wide variety of topics such as math, science, social studies, health, art, and technology. With the assistance of two quirky moderators, colorful graphics, and a clean uncluttered interface, students are drawn to these easy-to-understand discussions on thousands of topics they’re studying. They can search based on subject matter, video topic, Common Core or state standard, or simply browse a list of videos. Selection can be either a theme-based video or a game (called GameUp) — whichever is better suited to their learning style. Optionally, they can take a quiz and send results to the teacher. It can be purchased as a single-student license or a district-wide offering. Besides BrainPOP, the franchise offers BrainPOP Jr (for K-2), BrainPop Español, BrainPop Français, and BrainPop ESL.

History Channel Great Speeches


The History Channel includes a large collection of the most famous historic speeches in video and audio, including dropping the atomic bomb, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Jackie Robinson on racial taunts, and the 9/11 attacks.

This is a great primary source for students third grade and up in researching almost any topic, but especially history.  They hear original phrasing, emphasis, and often reactions to dramatic events that — without recordings — would be simply words on paper to most of them, devoid of passion, emotion, and motivation.

25308581 concept illustrating evolution from books to computersHow Stuff Works


How Stuff Works, available on the web, iPads, and Android, is an award-winning source of unbiased, reliable, easy-to-understand explanations of how the world actually works. This includes topics such as animals, culture, automobiles, politics, money, science, and entertainment. It uses a wide variety of media (photos, diagrams, videos, animations, articles, and podcasts) to explain traditionally-complex concepts such as magnetism, genes, and thermal imaging. It also includes Top Ten lists that address pretty much any topic, such as ten historic words that don’t mean what you’d think and ten things made from recycled wood.

Students twelve and older (and youngers with supervision) find thorough discussions on topics they’re researching with add-on articles that enable them to dig deeper. For those looking for more rigor, there are quizzes that evaluate their knowledge and challenge learning (such as the hardest words to spell and Who Said That).

Info Please


Info Please provides authoritative answers to questions using statistics, facts, and historical records culled from a broad overview of research materials including atlases, encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, thesauri, a calculator, the periodic table, a conversion tool, the popular Year-by-Year tracking what happened when, and the oft-quoted This Day in History.

Students middle school and up (or precocious elementary) can find easy-to-understand facts for a state report or a perspective project evaluating what happened around the world while they were winning a soccer game. Students 9-13 may prefer the younger-oriented, Fact Monster.

NOVA Videos 


NOVA Videos (part of PBS) offer high-quality, well-researched and professionally-presented videos on a wide variety of topics interesting to older students such as ancient civilizations, body and brain, evolution, physics, math, planet earth, space, tech and engineering, and more. It is not filtered for youngers (though everything is G-rated), rather addresses topics with the intent of explaining them fully to mature minds. Many topics include thorough teacher resources such as lesson plans and assessments. Of great utility to curious students is a series of over 400 video shorts (most two-five minutes) on topics such as robots, ancient civilizations, and nature — all searchable by topic and date.

Besides video, topics may include articles, Q&A, slideshows, audio, documentary (or fact-based) TV shows, timelines, quizzes, links to other sites, and DVDs/books available for purchase. Also available for educators are teacher videos, lesson plans, and webinars.

Condom withSchoolsWorld.TV


The UK-based SchoolsWorld.TV is a wonderful multimedia platform of films, games, and information you probably haven’t heard about. It is aimed at everyone involved in education, including students. Topics include math, science, history, geography, music, religious education, and more.

To use this site, students filter by their age group and then by the type of information they seek — videos, games, or PDF.

Smithsonian Learning Lab


The Smithsonian Learning Lab curates the more than one million digital images, recordings, and text available from the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums, nine major research centers, the National Zoo, and more. The goal is to inspire the discovery and creative use of knowledge.

During searches, students can easily tag and annotate discoveries, save them into their account profile, and then share with classmates. They can even create quizzes to assess their learning.



Zanran searches not only text (as is done by traditional browsers), but numerical data presented in graphs, tables, and charts and posted as an image. This huge amount of information can be difficult to find using conventional search engines, but not for Zanran (in beta).

For students looking for statistics or raw data on a subject, this is an excellent additional site to include in their research. Because of the sophistication of its approach, it is probably best-suited to middle and high school learners.


Decide which of these eight research tools suit your student group and then collect them into a Box of Links on your class website, Symbaloo account, or Edmodo. Also include more traditional offerings such as:

More on student research

Lesson plan on Internet Search/Research

How do I teach Inquiry and Research in Middle School

New Literacies Enable Smarter Researching

How to Research

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

4 Responses to Use Unconventional Research Sites to Inspire Students

  1. C. Carpenter

    the Kentucky library site under How to Research is fantastic! thank you.

  2. authorcrystalcollier

    This actually doesn’t surprise me because I spend enough time on both social media platforms. Who wouldn’t rather get their news in 140 characters? Or through and image and short paragraph? Shorter attention spans are the trend.

    • Jacqui

      I think that’s the direction information curation is going, Crystal. Even I–who loves in-depth analysis–find myself thrilled with the Twitter overview.

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