Wikipedia, love it or loathe it, is one of the most-viewed sources of science information on Earth.
Wikipedia is visited more often on mobile devices than USA Today, Fox News, and CNN combined. If students had an opportunity to communicate science with any of those audiences, most instructors would jump at the chance.
Once those instructors learn about the opportunities with Wikipedia, they do jump. The Wiki Education Foundation supported 116 science courses (more than 2,000 students) in the Spring 2016 alone. Collectively, those students have added information to articles viewed 67 million times.
That’s an incredible opportunity for students.
“I hoped that students would feel more motivation to write a public document than an essay that only their professor would read,” said Dr. Peter Barker, who teaches a course on science history at the University of Oklahoma. “The results exceeded my expectations. Already, more people have read the student output from this course than can possibly have read my own 40 years of writing.”
Imagine telling students that they’re responsible for learning, understanding, and communicating science knowledge for thousands of curious readers around the world. But the assignment is about more than the impact on readers.
Here are five reasons so many science instructors in higher ed are trading students’ final papers for a Wikipedia writing assignment.
1. Students apply their understanding to specific examples.
Science communication can help students apply concepts to specific cases. For example, Washington University St. Louis professor Joan Strassmann’s students study social insects. As students study social behavior, they create articles about specific species. They see the behavior in context. Those students have contributed hundreds of articles about insects, bees, and wasps. We’ve seen others: articles about the surface structures of planets, for example. Currently, Radford University students are doing a similar work with insects. Others have adopted minerals.
Other classes dive in even deeper, targeting one aspect of a species’ behavior or physiology; or about a single atomic bond or family. All of these tie back to broader learnings from the course, allowing students to write detailed examples. By focusing on communicating that knowledge with others, they master it for themselves.
“Articles on African archaeology are few and far between on Wikipedia,” said Dr. Kate Grillo, whose class at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, focused on coverage of those sites. “And those that do exist are often in need of substantial editing. I saw an opportunity, then, to both improve Wikipedia content and to teach my students a new set of skills.”
Some classes are helping to diversify the world’s idea of what a scientist looks like. Instructors can assign students to write about women scientists, black scientists, or others overlooked by history. We’ve seen great examples of Native American scientists, too. That helps students understand the diversity that drives scientific knowledge. It also helps bring more diversity to Wikipedia’s coverage of scientists.
2. Students become the teachers.
Students can challenge themselves to explain scientific concepts in words that their peers understand. Significant portions of Wikipedia articles contain jargon that lay readers can’t easily make sense of. By working to translate that jargon into comprehensible information, students develop their own understanding, and practice science communication skills. Acknowledging the gaps between public knowledge and their own is a valuable lesson for young scientists. Learning how to communicate through those gaps is essential.
Sydonie Schimler, a student whose work appeared on Wikipedia’s front page, told us: “I had to really think about what I chose to include in the article, so that everyone could understand it and gain something new from it. It was a nice change to write something both more general, but also scientifically detailed.”
3. Students contextualize their learning.
A great way to teach communication in sciences is to provide a context around science topics. That can help the public understand why a topic is important. Wikipedia articles often (but not always) improve when students think beyond scientific concepts to scientific contexts. As one student wrote:
“To write an effective Wikipedia article you have to really appreciate context,” he said. “For instance, chemistry students who want to prepare a complete Wikipedia article on a bioinorganic compound need to appreciate the biological, environmental, and historical context of that compound. We are forced to acknowledge aspects of the story that we may have otherwise ignored.”
Students have to understand the history behind a scientific concept, and explain how it’s changed. That gives students a better appreciation of the scientific process, and helps them express knowledge as a fluid, changing thing.
4. The public reads, and writes, Wikipedia.
Students who edit science articles on Wikipedia aren’t operating in a vacuum. Wikipedia’s readers, and other writers, will want to see evidence for what your student contributes. They may have to make compelling arguments about what should be included, in ways that the lay reader of Wikipedia can understand. Typically that means choosing reliable sources, but also learning how to defend their selection of information and how they’re presenting it. That’s a unique opportunity for undergraduates to practice direct engagement with the public about science. It can also offer insight into how the public perceives science information, and the types of questions non-scientists may have about your field.
Students will learn to be more aware of practices that can alienate readers. Wikipedia articles aim to be free of jargon and specialized language. It encourages writing for clarity in ways that academic writing may not.
Dr. Heather Tienson, who uses the assignment in her biochemistry course at UCLA, describes it this way: “I tell them on the first day: to write a good article it needs to be one that a high school student can understand, but also one that I can gain something from.”
5. Students develop media literacy skills.
On the surface, Wikipedia is about as easy as writing a post for Facebook. The difference is in the rigor of fact-finding for the content you share. This encourages students to apply a variety of skills in novel ways. It means media literacy, as students read and critique not just Wikipedia, but also the sources they use to build a reliable article.
We encourage students to approach Wikipedia with skepticism. What makes an article good, and what makes it bad? Once they internalize how to read Wikipedia, they can begin writing it. Once they write it, they develop the confidence to express what they’ve learned, and to fact-check themselves with the same kinds of critique they apply to others. That can transform knowledge from something learned into something known. It takes those media literacy skills and asks them to write to those standards they’ve internalized. That’s an essential skill for science communication.
If you’d like to explore the science communication potential of Wikipedia, we’d love to help. Our Year of Science initiative is still underway. We’ve already worked with more than 4,000 students this year across disciplines, and we’re looking to make an even bigger impact on sciences in the Fall. We’d love to have you join us, and offer your students a way to unlock their term papers and transform them into a hands-on experience in improving the public’s knowledge of science.
Want to get involved? Click here.
If you’d like to start a conversation about applying these skills to your own course, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.