Engaging students in interdisciplinary science communication

George Waldbusser is Associate Professor of Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry at Oregon State University. He’s integrated Wikipedia editing into his Biogeochemical Earth class several times.

When the email first appeared in my inbox with the title ‘Teaching with Wikipedia!’, I vacillated between, “that sounds really interesting” to “what kind of email spam is this?”

Fortunately, I trusted my instinct and went with the former.

I teach a graduate level required introductory course called Biogeochemical Earth for students in the Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Science and Marine Resource Management programs at Oregon State University. These students come to OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science to obtain an interdisciplinary education in order to prepare them to tackle some of the most interesting and pressing earth systems questions facing society today. Student engagement is always a challenge, and providing assignments that encourage they learn from one another has always been a priority of mine in the course. It is crucial in this ever shrinking world, of ever increasing interdisciplinary research questions to train students how to work well across those disciplinary boundaries that include cultural and language/semantics barriers. For the past two years now, I have successfully used Wikipedia projects to bridge that gap and find it to be far more engaging for the students than my previous approach of group pre-proposal projects.

The research trajectories of the students in my course include social science and marine policy, physics of the earth’s mantle, life in extreme environments, paleoclimatology, and physics, chemistry, and biology of the oceans, just to name a few. My co-instructor and I have 10 weeks to cover the fundamentals of how the biology and chemistry (with a splash of physics) of primarily the oceans work, with some specific examples of case studies ranging from the early pre-oxygen earth to changes in anchovy and sardine fisheries in the Pacific Ocean on decadal timescales. There are many topics I cannot cover, and many more we must skim over, but the Wikipedia project provides an opportunity for the students to dig deeper into a topic of their choice over the term.

Having their project as a public contribution provides two really important outcomes: First, it seems to promote a greater engagement and care in their work, and second it contributes to the largest crowdsourced information clearinghouse in the world. In an age where disinformation and information overload are increasingly important issues, it is more critical than ever to help contribute to Wikipedia, to provide greater access to the scientific works, and to ensure it is correct.

It may come as a surprise to some college professors that Wikipedia could be an integral part of college and graduate level courses, given a predisposition to dismiss information from Wikipedia as being unverifiable, especially compared to peer reviewed journals. That has certainly changed. I always approached Wikipedia with a strong skepticism, and continue to require my students to cite peer-reviewed literature for their assignments, but as participation increases, it seems Wikipedia has gotten better at self-correcting more quickly. Even more so, Wikipedia can provide an important entry point for both students and the public at large, who may not have access to scientific journals. I personally at times start at Wikipedia on topics I am unfamiliar with, if I don’t have another access point, but then again I used to read the Encyclopedia Britannicaas a kid out of sheer curiosity. I was fortunate enough to have the hard bound books in my room. Today, anyone with an internet connection can feed their curiosity with the world’s largest digital encyclopedia.

So how does one utilize Wikipedia in the classroom or as part of a course? There are many approaches to this. For me, the most important aspects is to have my students engage with one another around a topic (presumably something that they have some interest in), to explore that topic in greater detail than I can cover in class, and to teach them how to write clearly and convey information impartially to a target audience different than them. Wiki Education makes it incredibly easy to set up the project for your course, with a quick survey, they generate webpage with weekly tasks, deadlines, and discussion points to cover in class. This also includes training for student editors, and a tech support person who can help with how to questions.

While the students in the current term are still finalizing their projects, examples of their work from the previous year can be found in the blue carbon and Boring BillionWikipedia articles.

Relative to the quality of work submitted as part of the previous assignment that the Wikipedia project replaced, I was very impressed.

One of the students who developed the Boring Billion page was Brian Ahlers, a Marine Resource Management graduate student whose research is actually focused on marine fisheries and traceability.

“I learned so much about biogeochemical processes during Earth’s ancient geological history, and how to work well in groups,” Brian says. “After deploying our new Wikipedia page to production on Wikipedia for the public, we had the privilege of connecting with one of the world’s leading experts on the Boring Billion based in Tasmania. He was very excited about our new article, and had very positive feedback.”

Another graduate student in the Marine Resource Management program, Larissa Clarke, who is working on seagrass habitat use by fish and crabs, noted of her experience working on the Blue Carbon page in terms of science communication: “From the Wikipedia project, I think I most gained an appreciation/better understanding for what it means to write for a specific audience. Writing for a middle school level reader is much different than the assignments we turn in for class, obviously, but I think that was a great exercise because we are so often writing for our peers/professor and may not have the general public in mind.”

I look forward to continuing to utilize Wikipedia in the classroom as a tool to get students engaged more deeply in topics, to interact with each other, and to contribute to an important crowdsourced information depot. If you are a teacher, professor, or instructor, I hope you take a few moments to consider how you may use Wikipedia to enhance your own course and provide some unique learning opportunities to your students.

Image: OSU by air, by saml123, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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