Professors don’t often encourage students to use Wikipedia. But in two of Dr. Erin Larson’s environmental science courses – Climate Change and Water Resource Management – the open-source website is a key component. Students don’t just use Wikipedia, but also help improve it.
The popular website aims to democratize information. That means anyone – including APU undergrads – can contribute their knowledge, data, diagrams, and photos. And that’s exactly what Larson’s students do.
By contributing to Wikipedia, students learn to produce clear, unbiased science writing for the most general audience possible. This assignment is great for courses on climate change and water management, Larson said, because both fields involve the public and require effective science communication. By writing for a global audience, her students learn to write accurately and efficiently about complex topics.
Another benefit: students can share their work beyond the classroom. Compared to a term paper –which only a professor reads – a Wikipedia edit is seen by thousands of people. In fact, the pages edited by last year’s Climate Change course were viewed more than 200,000 times in the weeks immediately following the course.
“Not only are the students learning a lot, but they’re also contributing to the global community by improving open-source information,” Larson said.
Larson is part of the collaborative Limnology and Oceanography WikiProject, which aims to build out water-related pages to help make scientific information more accessible. Her APU students are part of a wider network of undergraduate editors that the WikiProject helps train.
During the semester, Larson’s students first learn how to access and edit Wikipedia through Wiki Education Foundation’s trainings. Next, they complete an article evaluation and look for ways to enhance the article’s information, add context and citations, or share their own images and diagrams. They draft their changes and complete a peer review of each other’s articles in class before posting their text live to the website.
The project expands public knowledge on a range of subjects, both general and local. Students in Larson’s Water Resource Management course this fall added 9,500 words and references to Wikipedia pages including stormwater harvesting, water quality law, Eklutna Glacier, and Kivalina, Alaska.
The assignment has three primary goals, Larson said: “Writing clearly, communicating science, and thinking critically about where information comes from and how it’s shared.” She sees Wikipedia as a valuable resource, but ensures her students know to check citations and always verify information found online (and in case you’re curious, no, students still can’t cite Wikipedia as a reference on their term papers).