Engaging engineering students in the humanities

By on January 5, 2018

Engaging engineering students in the humanities

By on January 5, 2018

Engaging engineering students in the humanities

Dr. Kathleen Sheppard is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Missouri University of Science and Technology. This fall, she conducted a Wikipedia assignment in her course, History of Science in Latin America. In this post, she reflects on the experience.

ImageFile:Kathleen Sheppard WEF blog.jpg, Kathleen Sheppard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every semester, I teach a survey course in the history of science.  I usually teach a European-focused survey that extends, as historians term it, from Plato to NATO, or from ancient times to the present.  However, in the Fall 2017 semester, due to the opportunity given to me through being part of two grants—one from the Department of Education to establish a minor in Latin American Studies with Technical Applications, and the other through the National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Connections—I got to teach the history of science in Latin America.  Since I’m in the history department at an engineering university, most of my students are engineering majors, a situation which presents unique challenges in getting them interested in course topics. Out of 26 students in this history of science class, 25 were engineers and 17 were women.  For the last 4 years I have consistently used some sort of blended format for my lecture courses.  These usually consist of applying gamification or simply using a modified discussion format—mainly because I did not have time to teach engineers how to write (and I did not want to grade) a longer term paper.

Thanks to the encouragement by colleagues at other institutions, this semester I used the resources from Wiki Education to organize a new type of project for my students.  Since the history of science in Latin America is not something that a lot of historians of science study or teach, I decided to have students complete the full twelve-week assignment for editing and adding to Wikipedia articles.  It turned out to be an engaging, fun, semester-long project for my students, and I plan to use the assignment again in the Spring for the European history of science survey.

I’m not really a theorist, but as a historian I always need to answer the “why” question.  Namely: it’s great to use new tools in class, but how do they enhance student learning?  First, I wanted students to learn to think and write critically.  Term papers can do that, but Wiki Education has online trainings that allow students to learn the process of writing through an exercise that has real-world consequences.  The second reason, related to the first, is the failure of pseudotransactionality. Pseudotransactionality is the practice of having students pretend to write a letter to an employer, a newspaper article, or even a tweet. It is a real process, but with an artificial end; they know this, so they tend not to work that hard at it. Students, and in my experience especially the non-humanities engineering majors, think that the reason for writing in many classes—for the professor to see, grade, and stuff in a file to be forever lost to the void—is a waste of time.  However, I drove home the point that writing for Wikipedia is a real transaction between the student and the real-world reader. That reality—what I called the power of public shame—is a powerful motivator for my students.  I imagine it is for many students across the US.  Finally, as James Lang has argued in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013), doing grounded assessment, projects that have an immediate impact on a student’s immediate environment (e.g. the internet), not only helps to eliminate cheating but more importantly increases student learning. A Wikipedia assignment did all of this for my students.

I arranged my course so that I lectured about course topics on Mondays and Wednesdays, then Fridays we worked on the Wikipedia project.  This meant that one day per week for 12 weeks I got to talk, in detail, with my students about how to think about course topics that they were interested in.  Wiki Education’s training goes through important research steps:

  • thinking critically about topics, the discussions surrounding the topics, and sources;
  • figuring out what is missing in any given article and what students would like to add to the conversation;
  • editing, both their own work and that of their peers;
  • and, I would argue most importantly, giving students the confidence to be experts on a topic and to put their expertise out into the public sphere.  

In essence, students learn the entire writing process, but they think they’re just writing about stuff they like.

One of my favorite student experiences from this semester was when I was talking to a student about her topic.  She had found two different print sources that mentioned one source in particular, but did not give any details about the third source.  She asked if she should find that third source, and how she should go about doing that.  I told her definitely yes, and showed her the process for getting the source sent to our library.  When she got the book, she brought it to class and had so much to say about what the source would add her topic, how she was going to use it, and why.  I explained to her, and the class, that that was what research was.  I also got to share with them stories of trials and tribulations of my finding sources for various projects—and they listened.

When they wrote their final reflection papers, every single student said that they had been resistant to the idea of doing work on Wikipedia because they just wanted to do a paper.  But during and after the process, they all said how much they 1) enjoyed the project; 2) learned more content from adding 500 words to an article than they had from doing long papers in other classes; and 3) learned more about the writing process than in other projects they had done.  All of them had been worried the work would be too much for them, but doing most of the work in-class tended to ameliorate that concern.

Assessing this type of project is difficult, and Wiki Education’s rubrics and guides were extremely helpful in figuring out how to do this.  I was focused on assessing the various steps along the way to the finished product.  One of the main reasons I chose this project was so I could help guide students’ research and writing skills.  I used detailed rubrics, and focused on having these be low-stakes assignments.  For example, even though the entire project was worth 600 total points (60% of the total course grade), all the steps leading up to the final article edits were worth relatively few points. Students could make changes all the way through, with the final goal being getting full marks on final deliverables: the Wikipedia article (180 points), presentation (60), and reflection paper (60).

Students were passionate about their topics and excited about the process. Students may have worked harder on this than on a term paper of the low-stakes, incremental grounded assessment and real-world implications of their projects. As with every new classroom tool, we must ask ourselves how students will engage with it and how the tool will help them thrive. With the resources developed by Wiki Education, students gained in depth understanding of how Wikipedia works and they learned the writing process—from beginning to end—and they had fun doing it.


For more information about teaching with Wikipedia, visit teach.wikiedu.org.


Image: File:Mststonehenge.jpg, Nebraska Puffer Fish, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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