James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 25, 2011

Using Undergrads to Improve Science On Wikipedia

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 12:41 pm

I came across a fascinating article on twitter while I was procrastinating this morning. It describes a class at Davidson College where, rather than having to write research papers for final projects, students instead wrote or updated wikipedia articles on topics within the field of the class (psychology in this case). Now there are many great things about wikipedia, but many of the entries on modern scientific subjects (stuff that you wouldn’t be able to find in high school/101 level textbooks) are woefully out of date and/or badly written.

Example: here is wikipedia’s list of published plant genome sequences. It lists 16 published plant genomes. But there are actually 25 published plant genome sequences at the moment.*

Despite that, when I can’t figure out how to track down a piece of information using literature searches, wikipedia is usually one of my first fallback solutions to at least get a broad overview of some subject I know very little about. The idea of having undergrads write up the information they’ve been learning in class to make it available to the broader public really grabbed my imagination. It sounds like students really like it too:

Students have been excited from the very first day I described the project. Many, many students have told me they particularly appreciate that their work will be read by more than “just the professor.”

I’m just a lowly grad student and can’t motivate large numbers of undergrads with the threat of having to write a traditional research paper, a necessary prerequisite for starting a project like this. But it’d be a lot of fun to help out with such a project in plant biology… ::mentally runs through the list of professors he might be able to pitch the idea to::

Yeah, I’ve got nothing. But I do know this is the first time I’ve actually been sad that grad students in my department don’t get the chance to teach independent courses.

*The missing ones are: thellungiella, Brassica rapa, papaya, castor bean, cannabis, strawberry, pigeon pea, lotus, and medicago

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