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Chemical Engineering 19 teaches science communication via Wikipedia contribution

A person opens a Wikipedia article about DNA on a laptop screen. A Fiat Lux seminar being offered this quarter is teaching students how to edit and create articles on Wikipedia. (Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)

By Catherine Wang

May 27, 2024 9:31 p.m.

This post was updated May 28 at 5:22 p.m.

The next time a person searches the internet to research native plants or local dialects, they may encounter Wikipedia articles edited by UCLA students.

Chemical Engineering 19, or “Writing for Wikipedia: Communicating Science to Global Audience,” is a Fiat Lux seminar that teaches students to write on Wikipedia. Over the course’s five meetings, students have had the freedom to choose their own Wikipedia topic to write about, whether or not it is related to science.

“For a long time, I’ve thought that students are basically the exact right level of people to write for Wikipedia,” said Irene Chen, the course’s instructor and an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “You don’t want world experts on particular topics to write for Wikipedia, because it’ll just be too much jargon and too much detail and possibly quite opinionated.”

Erica Ro, a first-year environmental science student, was one of 11 students taking the course. Ro said she chose to edit an existing article about the Santa Barbara milk vetch, a plant native to her hometown of Rancho Palos Verdes.

As a volunteer for the UCLA Herbarium, Ro said she already had an interest in researching the plant because the Palos Verdes blue – an endangered butterfly species – depends on the plant to lay its eggs.

“I went to the Wikipedia article for it (the plant), and it was really short,” she said. “It had one reference and a paragraph, and I was like, ‘That sucks. What can I do to expand upon it?’ So I started adding more about its distribution, about its ecology – especially with the relationship with that butterfly.”

Lizzie Su, a first-year environmental science student, said she chose to edit an article about heat waves after finding it on Wikipedia’s talk pages – where contributors can discuss what improvements should be made to an article. After noticing the original article had insufficient information, she said she decided to add details about the ecological impacts of marine heat waves.

Other students decided to create completely new Wikipedia pages, Chen said, adding that one student from a region in India that speaks Bhulia – a dialect of Chhattisgarhi, which is a language related to Hindi – created an original article about the dialect.

“There’s no way I would have come up with ideas like that,” Chen said. “That was really fun for me to learn a little bit more about what students were almost experts in and how … they could contribute to Wikipedia.”

Chen said she has previously included Wikipedia editing in her curriculum for other science and engineering courses, but it developed into a full-fledged course because of a UCLA initiative called Dialogue across Difference. The initiative called for Fiat Lux proposals to address the issue of improving communication, Chen added.

“It’s also a very broad problem in society at large – being able to agree on what the facts are and what the information is,” she said. “What I can try to help with is to get people more engaged in writing down and communicating scientific information.”

Before editing, students also had to learn about Wikipedia’s objectivity standards and plagiarism policies, Chen said.

Ro said the most surprising part about the Wikipedia editing process was the site’s heavy emphasis on accurate sourcing and referencing, especially after how much she has been advised to not trust Wikipedia as an academic source.

“You see how much research and how much training you have to go through in order to start editing,” she said. “It’s definitely giving you a new window into how much work goes into these articles. All these volunteers who put out their time to make sure they’re contributing to that sector of the internet is really cool to me.”

Since Wikipedia pages are never static, there is always room to refine published content and for other people to review a contributor’s work, Su added.

As an environmental science student, Ro said she felt that it was useful to learn how to communicate scientific information in an unbiased and concise way after reading text-heavy research articles. Su added that Wikipedia plays an important role in facilitating science communication because of its expansive presence on the internet.

“It’s almost like the gateway to so many different other science topics, because not only is it the first thing that pops up, … it’s often the most easy to read,” Ro said. “Before you know it, you’re deep in this one topic that you figured out existed two minutes ago.”

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Catherine Wang
Wang is a news contributor on the science and health beat and a first-year computational and systems biology student.
Wang is a news contributor on the science and health beat and a first-year computational and systems biology student.
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