Students Illustrate and Explain Wikipedia’s Microbiology Articles

Scott Mulrooney is Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. In this post he describes how he incorporates Wikipedia into his courses using two different assignment types. The image above was created by one of Scott’s students to illustrate Wikipedia’s root microbiome article.

I became aware of using Wikipedia for education when I went to a presentation on the Michigan State University campus. It was given by Jami Mathewson and Ian Ramjohn of Wiki Education, and detailed the ways Wikipedia can be used as a teaching tool. At that time, I was trying to think of small projects for my students that would be more impactful than the usual term papers I had been using. I wanted new ideas of what students could create that would not sit in a drawer after they were turned in, only to be disposed of a few months later.

Scott Mulrooney
Scott Mulrooney
Image: Scott Mulrooney.jpg, by Scott Mulrooney, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I teach two courses at MSU that involve Wikipedia. One is a large Introductory Microbiology class that serves over 450 students per year. For a small subset of these students that needed an extra project in order to receive honors credit, I had them “Illustrate Wikipedia.” The second class where I use Wikipedia is very small and involves writing articles.

My first experience using Wikipedia for teaching was using Illustrating Wikipedia projects, where students worked in small groups during class (some students were in a “flipped” class), or worked individually on their own figures. A significant challenge for the students was finding concepts within articles to illustrate, so I created a list of Wikipedia articles where course-related concepts needed figures. Their assignment was not to show “what”, but to explain “why” or “how” about the concept being discussed in the article where the illustration would be placed.

Once it was time to begin creating the illustrations, I was concerned that some students may not have the necessary computer skills to generate an illustration. My fears were unfounded because the students quickly utilized software they already knew (usually PowerPoint) and created their figures. After using class time to make final edits and add a legend, students presented their figures to the rest of the class: they explained what was missing from the article, how their figure helped make the article better, how the legend explained the illustration, and then viewed the article with their embedded illustration. At this point, I experienced something that I never previously had in my over 30 semesters of teaching this class. The excitement and sense of accomplishment that the students had when the class looked at their illustrations in the articles led me to realize that I would continue using Wikipedia as an educational tool. For my class that worked in small groups, their 16 Wikipedia illustrations were uploaded into 16 articles – those articles had over 108,000 views within the 30 days after the class ended.

I am currently working with my small Microbial Biotechnology class, which has only 13 students. There, the project is to either create or substantially expand and improve existing Wikipedia articles or stubs on topics related to course content. Because the class is small, I have the time to individually follow the students as they select topics, begin writing, and guide the editing process. These students also had trouble finding topics relevant to the course content, so I again created a list of topics that needed articles, or stubs or articles that needed significant expansion. They are now working through the tutorials provided by Wiki Education, and will soon begin drafting their articles.

Finally, I would like to say to any instructors considering using Wikipedia for teaching that Wiki Education provides outstanding assistance. I want to thank Helaine Blumenthal (who helped create my course pages and answered my numerous email questions) and Ian Ramjohn for helping me get started. Dr. Ramjohn, who happens to live near my campus, even came to my Biotechnology class to explain the Wikipedia editing process. If you are looking for a teaching pedagogy that creates a lesson that will be remembered by your students for many years, consider using Wikipedia.

If you’d like to learn more about how to teach with Wikipedia, visit or send us an email at

Image: Rhizodeposition.png, by Hallrob3, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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