Dr. Irene Chen gave her chemistry students a unique opportunity to practice science communication. She incorporated a Wikipedia writing assignment into her course at UC Santa Barbara this last fall. The course discussed major breakthroughs in nucleic acids research – information that students then channeled into relevant Wikipedia articles where details were missing. Eight students added a total of 13,600 words to Wikipedia this way, a process requiring that they synthesize research in the most concise, essentialized way possible.
3,600 of those words were channeled into Wikipedia’s article about systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment, a chemical process also known as in vitro selection. Before the student began improving the article, it was almost entirely made up of an introduction and no other informational sections. That was even noted on the article’s Talk page, where volunteers discuss their desired changes. Dr. Chen’s student responded directly to the issue by adding sections about the details of the procedure. Those new sections include information about how chemists generate a single stranded oligonucleotide library and then how that library is incubated to allow binding with the oligonucleotide-target. The student also added information about tracking the progress of the resulting reaction.
Another student expanded Wikipedia’s article about minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC), which before was also just an introduction and few references. 1,200 words later, the article boasts an additional 10 sources, as well as background information about the history and clinical usage of the MIC concept. As the article states, MIC “is the lowest concentration of a chemical, usually a drug, which prevents visible growth of bacterium,” a definition supported by a review paper published in 2005 about the treatment of bacterial infectious diseases. The article has been viewed almost 13,000 times since the student made changes – many more than would a typical term paper!
Students tend to invest more in their work when they realize it can be accessed by millions. They understand the responsibility to represent information accurately and take their new-found role of ‘knowledge creator’ seriously. They’re a great group to do this work well, especially in the sciences. Students can translate complex course topics for a general audience who might be learning about the topic for the first time because they remember what that was like. They do a great service to the world by sharing expertise they have access to (both through their professor and their library resources) with Wikipedia’s worldwide readership. That matters, and they understand that.