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Students improve Wikipedia’s science, build skills and benefit all

By Allison Ong

June 2, 2016 2:32 a.m.

Correction: The original article stated UCLA students contributed more than 65,000 entries to Wikipedia. In fact, students contributed more than 65,000 words.

In Heather Tienson’s biochemistry advanced honors seminar, students don’t cite Wikipedia articles for their research assignments: they rewrite them.

Tienson’s Chemistry 189 students this quarter edited scientific Wikipedia articles as part the Year of Science, a program launched by the Wiki Education Foundation to expand reliable science content on Wikipedia.

Multiple teachers at UCLA have introduced the same assignment in their classes, leaving students’ newfound research results on the web for the public to use, said Eryk Salvaggio, communications manager for the Wiki Education Foundation.

During a presentation Friday, Jeet Das, a third-year physiological sciences student in Tienson’s class, described his findings about the drug nociceptin and its medicinal benefits to the class. Das said writing the article helped him apply chemistry concepts he learned in Chemistry 153A: “Introduction to Structure, Enzymes and Metabolism” to a real-life setting.

Tienson said she was initially drawn to the idea of a Wikipedia writing assignment because it gives students the opportunity to develop their research skills in a unique format.

“It’s not like writing a lab report or writing a paper,” Tienson said. “I tell them on the first day: write a good article – one a high school student can understand but one I can gain something from.”

About 200 American and Canadian colleges including Harvard University and UC Berkeley have participated in the program. UCLA alone has contributed more than 65,000 words to Wikipedia’s science content since the Year of Science launch date. At UCLA, 87 students have contributed more than 70 articles – the most successful year the foundation has seen, Salvaggio said.

Students selected a topic based on how much information about it was available on Wikipedia, Tienson said. Lisa Liu, a second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, said she wrote about protein aggregation because she had studied it in a lab. Since the article only contained a basic introduction to her topic, she compiled additional information from PubMed and her biochemistry textbook.

“It helps us understand the topic better because we’re writing in simpler terms,” Liu said.

After he researched nociceptin through scientific research databases, Das said he not only added to pre-existing sections but created two new ones: one on the drug’s cognitive effects and the other on its usage to treat drug addictions.

“The seminar taught me how to read dense research articles and phrase them completely in my own words,” he added.

Alexander Spokoyny, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, also required his class to participate in the program last winter. His Chemistry 171: “Intermediate Inorganic Chemistry” students worked in small groups to complete the task, receiving either a pass or fail grade based on how much they put in the assignment. He said he plans to bring the assignment back again next school year.

“Students see the purpose of what they’re doing,” he said. “Folks actually … write something that could be useful to other people.”

In addition to improving technical coverage on Wikipedia, the Year of Science program encourages students to update articles about female scientists to balance the coverage of men and women in science. About 500 articles about women have been updated so far.

TIenson said one student in her class added the scientific contributions of Mary Bernheim, a female biochemist, to her Wikipedia page. Before the revision, the article contained mostly information about Bernheim’s marriage, and only a couple of sentences about her career.

The foundation will continue the Year of Science program with UCLA and other universities, Salvaggio said.

“When students tap into resources and use them to write articles, they’re sharing something with the rest of the world that the rest of the world can’t do,” he said.

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Allison Ong
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