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Tables of elements show how online subjects endure

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Posted on 5th July 2011 by Judy Breck in Chemistry, Emerging Online Knowledge and Open Content

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There are 3 websites for periodic tables of elements that have been the most popular ones on the internet since the 1990s. The article that follows describes them. These three are examples of many excellent websites about academic knowledge that are created by experts in a subject and kept up-to-date and authentic by their authors.

The most remarkable thing about the following article is that it was true in 1999, true in 2006, when I first wrote it, and remains true today in 2011. The three tables of elements described in the article remain in the top Google search results, as they have for over a decade.

Amateur, Laboratory and University Open the Tables: Interactive Tables of Elements
By Judy Breck 2006

One of the most popular early topics for digital education interpretation was the periodic table of elements. The reason is obvious. The table begs to be interactive. On a webpage, each of the elements can become interactive: click on an element and you arrive at its details.

In the late 1990s dozens of tables of elements clogged the popular search engines. Then Google came along to elevate the tables of elements that users liked best. Three of them floated to the top of the Google search return. Those same three have stayed there for several years.

I described these three open education resources for tables of elements in Education Technology magazine in the summer of 2006*:

“On February 28, 1996, eighth grader Yinon Bentor presented his science project to his class at school. It was an interactive periodic table of chemical elements displayed on an Internet browser — a new tool that Yinon had coaxed out of the connecting digital world. At the time there were only a handful of periodic tables on the World Wide Web. In the months that followed his class presentation, Bentor’s project took first place in his school science fair’s brand new Computer Science/Mathematics category and won the “Navy/Marines Distinguished Achievement Special Award” at the 40th Piedmont Region, Illinois Science Fair. These are commendable achievements for an eighth grader, but school recognition was just a beginning.

“The project Yinon Bentor put online a decade ago is still there and he still hosts it and tinkers along with improvements. Two other period tables of elements, one from Los Alamos National Laboratory and another from the University of Sheffield, along with Bentor’s, nearly always are the top three periodic tables listed in a search for “periodic table of elements” on Google.”

These websites are prime examples of open education resources. Are their tables of elements really of high quality? Materials that cost money are better, we feel it in our gut. There must be a highly paid expert inside ivy walls somewhere who has created the superior learning material for every and any subject.

The way the Internet has developed, that line of thinking has proven wrong. In the example of tables of elements, in what kind of superior walled off source of origin would those websites be? The three open tables of elements described here are tended, respectively, by a devoted amateur, scientists at a leading government laboratory, and academics at a major university. Here is what these keepers say about the open education resources they oversee.

Yinon Benton writes on the About page of ChemicalElements.com, the website he has been nurturing and supporting personally since he was in junior high school: “Recently, I’ve added advertising to this site in order to make up for the costs I incur because of having this site on its own domain hosting the site on Pair Networks, a fast commercial host, and in order to make a profit from the work I put into this site . . . . More Coming Soon! I’m always looking to update this site and add more information. If you know of something that would make this page better, please let me know and I’ll do my best to add it in future updates.”

The scientists at Periodic Table of the Elements at Los Alamos boast about their web-child: “Originally this resource, the Periodic Table, was created by Robert Husted at Los Alamos National Laboratory during his time as a Graduate Research Assistant. The Periodic Table that you are currently viewing was inherited by the Chemistry Division from the Computer Division who provided the laboratory some of the internet’s first web sites. This page was given a face lift, tummy tuck, and lobotomy in 2002/2003 by Mollie Boorman.” [Current version here]

The Papa of WebElements, the periodic table at the University of Sheffield, is Dr. Mark J. Winter of the Department of Chemistry. He explains how the website came to be that he continues to tend for thousands of online visitors: “The periodic table on the WWW [is my] first site. Running since 1993, although its origins lie in a HyperCard program (MacElements) I started work upon around 1989.”

Open education resources like the three tables of elements discussed here are custom projects by experts in the knowledge they interface. They virtually let the student look over the shoulder of scholars like Dr. Winter, shown here—sparking study and exciting learning.

* Judy Breck, “Why Is Education Not in the Ubiquitous Web World Picture?” Education Technology, July-August 2006, pp. 43-46.