STEM students learn applied communication skills by contributing to Wikipedia

By on September 7, 2018

STEM students learn applied communication skills by contributing to Wikipedia

By on September 7, 2018

STEM students learn applied communication skills by contributing to Wikipedia

For a number of years Dr. Kelee Pacion has both taught with Wikipedia and encouraged others to implement the assignment in their own courses. In July 2018 she spoke with instructional design specialist and host of the podcast In Vino Fabulum Dr. Patrice Prusko about the value of such an assignment — especially for women in STEM — and why she continues to teach students how to contribute to the online encyclopedia.

Dr. Pacion is the Undergraduate Life Sciences Librarian at Cornell University. She has a background in STEM instruction, informational literacy, and instructional design. Dr. Pacion describes herself as a lifelong learner with an interest in how to best communicate what she has learned. Working with Wikipedia, she explains, is a great opportunity for teaching students applied communication skills. She particularly feels that Wikipedia is a great tool for science communication — the focus of many of her college courses.

“When you’re writing for Wikipedia, you’re writing for a different audience. And it’s for the world’s knowledge. You’re sharing information that we have access to at Cornell, but not everyone has access to the resources we have. So when students contribute to Wikipedia, they share the knowledge they have access to.”

And because students feel a responsibility to this public audience, “they’re careful about the types of resources they use. The assignment teaches informational literacy without the student feeling like it’s a library class. And they’re so engaged because they like sharing what they’ve learned. It’s not an academic paper that might go in a file somewhere; it’s for everyone to read.”

Dr. Prusko references the abundance of evidence that students are more likely to have a better experience when they work on something that is personally meaningful to them. Wiki Education has also found that to be true with a Wikipedia assignment, given the positive feedback we receive from students and instructors alike. Feedback from Dr. Pacion’s students echoed this finding. Writing for Wikipedia had much more meaning for them than writing an academic paper, as they discovered to their excitement that contributing content meant that they could communicate with a global audience as opposed to a single class or professor.

So learning how to contribute to Wikipedia can help with science communication skills and digital literacy, Dr. Pacion explains. It can also help right imbalances in STEM fields and knowledge in general by closing the gender gap.

“Why is it important that more women participate in Wikipedia editing?” Asks Dr. Prusko.

Dr. Pacion responds that including more people of diverse genders and ethnicities in science communication is important because they bring diverse perspectives. And ultimately, science communication should be representative of all knowledge from all angles, written by and representative of all people.

Dr. Pacion tells the story of a particular student who really took to the Wikipedia assignment. As an aspiring microbiologist,

“She felt that the microbiology articles could be developed, and that not many students were going into that field now. So she was really engaged in increasing the WikiProject for microbiology. She was also interested in translating articles into Spanish. And that was completely on her own. Basically, she had a love of the topic, knew that those articles hadn’t been developed, and she also knows that microbiology itself as a field is decreasing in popularity. So she was trying to promote her field, and Wikipedia was a big hit for her. … And she intends to edit Wikipedia in the future.”

Wikipedia contributors are predominantly young, Western, and male. Including more voices in editing the world’s leading source of online information is a valuable pursuit that directly affects world knowledge. Plus, the Wikipedia community is always looking for new contributors.

“The Wikipedia editorbase is dwindling,” Dr. Pacion mentions. “And I think students are one of the ways that we can bolster the editorbase, expand it, and diversify it.”

Wiki Education’s programs help connect passionate students (like the above mentioned microbiologist) with the tools and skills they need to channel that interest to a worldwide audience. If you’re interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your own course, visit teach.wikiedu.org to get started or reach out to contact@wikiedu.org with questions.

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