Students, Sources, and Sentinels at AAAS

In February, Boston played host to thousands of scientists, policy makers and journalists who attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference took place against a background of mounting concern in the scientific community about the future of science during the new presidential administration. While the conference was going on, hundreds of people, including many AAAS attendees, gathered nearby in Boston’s Copley Square for a “Rally to Stand Up for Science”. In her plenary address, Naomi Oreskes (author of Merchants of Doubt) argued that scientists should serve as “sentinels,” willing to speak up about the policy implications of their research. Many scientists take a more cautious approach, preferring to let the science “speak for itself” rather than take a more activist role, but they still see the value in supplying the public with good scientific information. The problem they face is how to do this. This is where Wiki Education can help.

Wikipedia is the place where people go for information, but the quality and coverage of information is uneven. In a workshop at AAAS entitled “Mind the Gaps: Wikipedia as a Tool to Connect Scientists and the Public”, Greg Boustead of the Simons Foundation pointed out that the coverage of women scientists on Wikipedia is less complete than that of their male colleagues (and what coverage does exist tends to speak less about the significance of their contributions to science). When scientists assign their students to create biographies of women scientists, they aren’t engaging in activism; they’re merely working to ensure that the facts that are out there “speaking for themselves” are representative of reality. In the same workshop, Wiki Education’s Director of Programs, LiAnna Davis, discussed the role that students can play in translating scientific knowledge into something that’s more understandable to general audiences.

But a Wikipedia assignment doesn’t simply help communicate science to the public; it can also help students learn. Many see the rise of “fake news” as a major threat to the ideal of an informed population, and people have been shown to have trouble distinguishing good sources from poor ones. Instructors who have taught with Wiki Education have seen an improvement in these sorts of media literary skills among their students. A Wikipedia assignment can shift the power dynamic in the classroom, changing students from being passive recipients of information into active disseminators of knowledge. People who stopped by our booth in the AAAS Exhibit Hall were quick to recognize that potential.

Over the course of three days, the flow of people through the Exhibit Hall kept conversations at the Wiki Education booth lively. In addition to scientists, the AAAS meeting attracted people from the fields of science policy, science communication, and various parts of government. Mark Sarvary and Kelee Pacion presented on their experience using a Wikipedia assignment with students in a class at Cornell. The American Junior Academy of Science poster session and the conference Family Days brought in high schoolers, middle schoolers, teachers and parents. Teachers were quick to see the utility in a Wikipedia assignment, but parents were sometimes more skeptical. Middle and high schoolers often lamented the fact that they were not supposed to use Wikipedia at all (while admitting that, like anyone else, it was the first place they went for information). While many people tried to wrap their minds around Wikipedia’s reliability, everyone I spoke to seemed to recognize the value of high-quality sources, and the importance of critical judgment in evaluating sources.

Wiki Education provides technical tools, training materials, and flexible assignment timelines to make integrating Wikipedia into your courses as simple as possible. Instructors and students also receive staff support throughout the semester. For more information about teaching with Wikipedia generally, visit If you’d like to talk with someone about setting up an assignment in your next course, reach out at or visit


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