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Writing Wikipedia as an academic assignment in STEM fields

Összefoglaló: The Wikipedia student assignment is rarely used in STEM courses. Now we are trying to change this by partnering with Israel's top scientific university.
STEM and Wikipedia

A kihívás

Small language Wikipedias face unique challenges, as a consequence of the smaller community of speakers of those languages. One of the challenges is decent coverage of certain topics: the Venn diagram intersection of people speaking that language AND being Wikipedia editors AND being interested in a particular topic becomes exceedingly small. Such is the case with Hebrew Wikipedia. There are only around 9 million Hebrew speakers, and as a result, certain knowledge areas in Hebrew Wikipedia are quite lacking. STEM topics, in particular chemistry, biology and engineering, and technology, have rather poor coverage in Hebrew Wikipedia. Wikimedia Israel aims to reduce these knowledge gaps through its activities and outreach.

A jelenlegi helyzet

The Wikipedia student assignment has been a part of the Wikimedia Israel’s Education Program for quite a few years and has been used in many higher-education courses, resulting in thousands of new and expanded articles on Hebrew Wikipedia. However, the majority of the assignments are in the Humanities and Social Sciences fields. After all, developing writing skills in these fields is viewed both by educators and students as part and parcel of the academic training that should be offered.

In STEM fields, the situation is very different. When studying natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technological sciences, the focus of the studies is learning the content and subject matter and developing relevant skills such as solving equations, running analyses, or conducting experiments. Rarely do lecturers or students consider writing as a skill that is relevant to those studies. This also seems natural, as many of the students choose these fields precisely because writing and verbal skills are not always their strongest suit.

Our new initiative

Recently, however, Wikimedia Israel has partnered with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, which is Israel’s leading educational institute for science and technology. Our collaboration involves the Technion’s Social Hub – the social engagement program of the Technion – and the institute’s Center for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching. By partnering with these bodies we offer educators support in integrating a writing assignment in their course as an assignment that has both social and pedagogical value.

The social value is obvious: the creation of free knowledge in these undercovered topics under the supervision of a lecturer has a wide and beneficial impact on society. It allows people who have no access to higher education to learn about those topics in their native language, thereby contributing to reducing knowledge inequality. The pedagogical value is that writing Wikipedia articles about scientific topics facilitates students’ learning. It is often said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough”. The assignment requires students to write in a way that anyone, without any professional or prior knowledge, understands the article. This demands explaining topics and concepts in a clear and concise manner, without using jargon or “showing off”. Doing so ultimately requires a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

The assignment has been successfully used in the past two years in the course “sociology for urban planners” at the architecture faculty, a rather “soft” course. This year the assignment is also integrated into a course at the Biotechnology & Food Engineering faculty. In January, we presented the initiative to a group of around 30 lecturers from different faculties at the Technion, which hopefully will spur new collaborations in the next academic year.

The presentation was covered in various news outlets (e.g., the Jerusalem Post, Israel 365 News) and we hope that other academic institutions will join us in this project.

The take-home message

There are two points to emphasize when introducing the assignment to STEM educators and students. One is that developing the ability to write clearly about their profession will be beneficial no matter what direction they choose to take in their professional career. Whether writing academic articles or proposals for grants or working in the industry and writing reports or presenting their work – being able to communicate clearly regardless of who their audience is will be an advantage.

The second point is the importance of science communication and its impact on society. Especially because the coverage of STEM topics on Hebrew Wikipedia is under par, their writing will have a bigger impact. It will be the first thing school children read when encountering a new term. It will be used by high-school students who need to get a general understanding of a topic. Their articles will be read by the general public for years to come. The Wikipedia assignment is therefore an opportunity for both personal development and for social contribution.