Learning to share and sharing to learn: Public engagement and the Year of Science

Dr. Debby Walser-Kuntz taught with Wikipedia in her immunobiology course at Carleton College. Rachel Cheung and Dana Paine were students in that class. In this collaborative post, they describe the experience, identifying benefits to their research and science communications skills.

When I was deciding whether or not to incorporate a Wikipedia writing project into my upper level biology course for the Wiki Education Foundation’s Year of Science, I weighed the potential benefits and drawbacks to replacing the more traditional short research paper I had previously assigned.

Students in the Immunology course already complete a community-based academic civic engagement (or academic service learning) project with a community partner. One aspect of the community-based projects I appreciate is that they provide an authentic audience for the students, one that reaches beyond my office as I sit grading at the end of the term.

Wikipedia intrigued me as a different form of engagement, one of public scholarship, defined by Imagining America as “diverse modes of creating and circulating knowledge for and with publics and communities”. As the students and I came to appreciate, Wikipedia embodies both the “for” and the “with” communities, as individuals beyond our classroom read, commented on, and continue to edit our Wikipedia articles.

Many undergraduate science majors will go on to graduate or medical school, or into fields such as public policy or public health, where clear communication is essential. The past five to ten years have seen several science organizations host conferences to help scientists develop tools to effectively engage with the public. The purpose of improved communication is not only to share scientific findings, but also to shape policy and public perception.

There were two key goals for the Wikipedia assignment: build research skills using the scientific literature and practice translating science effectively for a general audience. A short nine weeks after working their way through the Wikipedia tutorials, the students’ completed articles had been peer reviewed, edited, and posted.

Students reflected on this process in their portfolios. The following excerpts, written by two students enrolled in the course, demonstrate the depth of learning provided by this assignment.

Building Research Skills

Although prior science courses had taught me how to approach reading primary literature and write lab reports, this experience required me to go one step further. I had to shift the focus from simply reading the literature to searching for a comprehensive slate of relevant sources, assessing their credibility, and building an article from scratch.

Finding sources, while seemingly simple in theory, ended up being incredibly difficult. My topic, for instance, was C3a, one protein in a complicated complement cascade triggered during an immune response. Typing C3a into the PubMed database yielded 3,042 results, far more than I could possibly read and evaluate. While this meant there was plenty of readily available information about the topic at hand, our goal was not to summarize every study that had ever included our subject. With limited time, we had to distill an immense amount of information into a few key ideas.

To shape what I might want my article to look like, I read through general reviews of complement and formulated an outline of what my Wikipedia article would look like. I defined four core sections of my article (structure, formation, function, and regulation), and sketched in the specific information I already knew from my readings and the immunology course. From there, I was able to complete much more specific searches and find the information I needed without wading through marginally relevant articles and low-impact clinical trials.

However, from here I needed to assess the validity of sources; beyond checking how many times an article had been cited or journal impact factors, I gained experience reading dense scientific papers and evaluating the validity of their results. This part of the research, while the most time consuming, let me take ownership of the article I edited. More than that, it enabled me to engage deeper with my course material, connecting it to laboratory methods, clinical research, and other biological networks.

Communicating Science Effectively

After we had completed the research component, the next step was to write. Although most of our science classes involve a scientific writing component, it is usually in the form of a scientific “journal-esque” lab report. As liberal arts students, we had experience writing for a more general audience in our humanities and art classes. Scientific and nonscientific writing have distinct forms, and as students we are working on developing our voices in both.

But the Wikipedia assignment introduced a skill that I think often gets overlooked in science education: translating complex scientific ideas so that they can be communicated to the general public. It takes a thorough and sophisticated understanding of any topic to be able to communicate it in a clear and effective way for a general audience.

I found that the process of finding a voice to communicate these scientific ideas, organizing my thoughts, and deciding upon the essential information forced me to more deeply and completely understand the research that I had been doing.

The Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “While we teach, we learn,” and I think that it is that same teaching and learning philosophy that allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts through the process of writing. Our Wikipedia articles were supposed to synthesize the detailed, specific, and highly scientific research that we did in a way that informs a lay audience about the subject. Through our articles we took on the role of teacher.

Instead of simply summarizing the details of the papers we read, it was important that we interpret the most important aspects of the papers and communicate them in a way that eliminated scientific jargon and focused on the key concepts – this required both a deepening and broadening of our understanding of the research.

I realized the gaps in my own knowledge and the areas where I needed to do more research as I considered how to fully explain a particular idea without using highly specific scientific terms. Ultimately, the process of writing for a general audience helped us to think about science and writing in a different way, forcing an expansion and synthesis in our knowledge and understanding.

Concluding Thoughts

It was not until I read through their portfolios that I recognized the students had achieved more than the original goals for this assignment. Students not only gained useful practice in both the process of scientific research and writing, but reported additional unexpected benefits, such as the discovery of the “Talk” and “View history” pages, which allows them to assess the accuracy of articles, or the experience of publishing original illustrations under a Creative Commons license.

And, finally, many students expressed a sense of pride – and sometimes, surprise – that as undergraduates they had already learned enough to share in a broad public conversation about science.

If you’d like to get involved in integrating a Wikipedia-driven science communication assignment into your own course, Wiki Ed can help. Find out more about our Year of Science initiative, which is still recruiting for fall, or connect to us at contact@wikiedu.org.

Photo: Bust of Seneca, by Jean-Pol GRANDMONTSelf-photographed, CC BY 3.0.


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