Opening a can of bookworms

Mark A. Sarvary is a senior lecturer in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He is the director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories. You can read his blogs at and follow him @cornellbiolabs.

When you ask students: “When was the last time you walked into a library to pick up a book?” they often respond with a blank stare. Books in a library? In the “Become a Wikipedian: Write for Wikipedia and contribute to the World’s understanding of biology” course at Cornell University, students were asked to go and find a book in the library, and use that book as a reference for their biology-related Wikipedia entry. There was mixed confusion and excitement in the air. Some groups walked out of the classroom and then stopped, wondering how to find a book in a library that they frequently visit to use the computers, to print their term papers, or simply to take a quick nap in one of the comfortable chairs.

Mark, far left, with his students.
Mark, far left, with his students.

“This is just like a treasure hunt,” one student said as she disappeared in the stacks of the 3rd floor of Mann library at Cornell University.

You may be thinking: “what are the benefits of finding a book in this modern age?” A scene from the first Matrix movie may answer that. Do you remember when Trinity and Neo decide to rescue Morpheus? Suddenly, shelves and shelves of ammunitions appear, and they stock up. The stacks in the library are just like that. You go and find a book but you rarely walk out with only one. These books are organized by topic, so when you locate one, you locate an arsenal of books on the same topic, expressing different opinions or the same information digested by different scientists.

These books, among other publications, become important resources for Wikipedia editors, or so called Wikipedians. Most students first go to Wikipedia to learn about a new phenomenon. Instead of discouraging this habit, it is better to educate students how to edit these Wikipedia entries, so readers can find reliable information when they open this modern, virtual encyclopedia. Wikipedia students at Cornell University decided to edit challenging topics, such as genetically modified sperm, osmoconformers, the fear-avoidance model in child development, and fusiform gyrus. While these students may still be taking introductory biology courses, they can become the experts of their topic of choice through collecting information from many resources, and share it with the World through Wikipedia. This is a special form of science communication that empowers the author, starts conversations with other Wikipedians all over the world, and engages readers who would like to learn more about this topic. Editing Wikipedia is a global level peer-review that students enjoy and benefit from.

The Wikipedia course was designed following Wiki Education’s suggested template in the Dashboard. This tool attempts to standardize the curriculum regardless of subject discipline in which Wikipedia writing and editing is taught. One of the strengths of this course was the collaborative teaching effort by Ashley Downs and Kelee Pacion, two Cornell librarians, and a biology faculty member, Dr. Mark Sarvary.

What the instructors and the students took away from this course in the past three semesters will be presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston. The poster will be displayed in the Education category on Saturday, February 18, 9:30 am-4:30 pm.

If you cannot be at the AAAS meeting, but you are interested in joining this treasure hunt for knowledge and become a Wikipedian, start by following the inviting vanilla scent of books to the library.

If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate Wikipedia into your course, visit or send us an email at


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