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Environmental engineer contributes to Wikipedia article for grad school class

Joseph Lapka was unsure what to expect when he signed up for Professor Sheldon Gen’s Environmental Policy course at San Francisco State University. The course description indicated that Joseph, who is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s civil and environmental engineering program and who is currently in the master of public administration program at SF State, would be writing a Wikipedia article as part of his coursework. Joseph is also working full time as an environmental engineer, so he is familiar with policy briefs, but he wasn’t quite sure how Wikipedia would fit in the classroom.

Joseph Lapka

Joseph Lapka is a master's student at San Francisco State University.

“A lot of the policy work I do professionally involves applying existing policies to new or unique situations and that is in some ways different than the encyclopedic type of writing that is appropriate for Wikipedia,” Joseph says. “Having completed the course, I think the overall experience was a good one. The Wikipedia project fit well with the structure and content of the course and I think that contributed to the positive experience.”

Another positive part of Joseph’s experience was the presence of his Wikipedia Ambassadors. The face time with his Campus Ambassadors, Derrick Coetzee and Max Klein, made them his first point of contact whenever he had a question.

“My Campus Ambassadors regularly visited my class to guide us through the technical aspects of preparing and posting our articles,” Joseph explains. “Both of the ambassadors were very knowledgeable and eager to help with what was a new experience for many of us. I think our Campus Ambassadors are another aspect of this project that made the experience a positive one.”

Joseph chose to write his article on the regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. It’s a topic of considerable current public policy debate, and Wikipedia’s coverage was limited. Joseph says he saw the assignment as a chance to use his knowledge as an environmental engineer to make Wikipedia better.

“I always give all of my assignments my best effort,” he says. “However, knowing that my article would be posted online for others to read gave me an even greater incentive to seek out differing points of view, be more critical of my sources of information, and document those sources more thoroughly.”

Joseph says this is the first course assignment that hasn’t ended with the end of term. Instead, other Wikipedia editors are making contributions to the article, and Joseph is watching to see what changes get made. He says he’s very interested in seeing how the article evolves over time.

“With a traditional assignment, your only audience is often your professor, or at most your professor and your classmates,” Joseph says. “I really liked the fact that this assignment gave me an opportunity to write for a broader audience and make a valuable contribution to a resource that I often use myself.”


LiAnna Davis
Communications Associate – Public Policy Initiative

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