If you teach in the science department at Louisiana State University and want to incorporate a Wikipedia assignment into your classroom, Becky Carmichael is the person to meet. She began volunteering as a Wikipedia Ambassador in the Wikipedia Education Program in the United States in 2011, during her graduate studies and work as a teaching assistant for a Conservation Biology course. Since she had taught the class many times and was familiar with the content, she said it was a great way to focus on “the nuances of Wikipedia.” Then Becky became the Science Coordinator with Communication across the Curriculum, a Louisiana State University program that helps undergraduates improve their writing and technological communication skills. She already understood the basics of editing Wikipedia and how to incorporate it into a classroom assignment, and now she could reach instructors in other areas of science.

To date, Becky has helped 13 classes use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. With so much experience as a Wikipedia Ambassador, she has developed her own training routine and learned the importance of communicating these assignments’ potential impact.

“For students, I like to introduce Wikipedia with a pre-workshop homework set,” she says. “The homework is very similar to the Wikipedia Ambassador training I received in 2010, with the addition of the online “training for students” — a truly valuable resource! During the workshop, we can get into details about what Wikipedia is, the importance of sharing information, and what they will gain from the experience. I emphasize that as members of the university, we have access to a wealth of information and resources the general public may not. We can give our research and exploration of a topic purpose by sharing with others.”

When instructors work with Becky to develop Wikipedia assignments, they get advice from someone who teaches with Wikipedia herself.

“I teach an honors-level course for non-science majors, Natural Disturbances and Society,” Becky says. “This is a course I developed to examine how natural disturbances (e.g., fires, hurricanes, invasive species) influence our lives and how society can influence disturbance events. My class is currently proposing creation of articles or the significant contribution to existing pages related to the course. It’s a great class, which encourages science literacy and exploration, with interesting connections to society, which may currently not be included in some disturbance or disaster articles.”

In Becky’s experience, in the beginning of the term, “students are initially uncomfortable with contributing to Wikipedia. They think it will break and become intimidated because of the global visibility. And who wouldn’t be nervous? Their work is going to be read by potentially millions of people, not just their instructor. I tackle this by having the students provide each other feedback on drafts in their sandboxes first. It is still intimidating to let classmates review their work, but I found that the students really put forth even better initial drafts. They also help each other learn better communication skills, sharing editing tricks and grammatical advice. It’s amazing how much the quality of contributions improved. The feedback exercise was also one of the aspects students really found useful stating they appreciated learning how to clarify and strengthen their writing.”

One of the great things about partnering with a university professional is that her Wikipedia Ambassador responsibilities fit so neatly into her job description.

“My focus as the Science Coordinator is to aid undergraduates in effectively disseminating scientific information through writing, speaking, visual, and technological means. Additionally, I assist faculty in course and assignment design that improves communication and critical analysis skills. Wikipedia can be the perfect way to achieve both of these skill sets because it is a cooperative writing process based in technology,” Becky says.

Her work as a Wikipedia Ambassador advances her mission within her career, and her role at the university gives her a great opportunity to influence students. By providing “one-on-one assistance to both faculty and students learning how to edit and navigate the site,” Becky makes sure assignments will not only achieve important learning objectives but also will positively impact Wikipedia.

As Becky has become a campus expert in teaching with Wikipedia, she has welcomed the opportunity to reach course goals creatively.

“I enjoy brainstorming ways to approach an assignment, make connections to real-world applications, and methods to excite the students,” Becky says. “I am passionate about improving science literacy and can truly ‘geek out’ over science topics. I like that Wikipedia represents sharing of knowledge and the increase of literacy in many topics in a friendly environment. The community involvement can be impactful on both student learning as well as inspiration for continual discovery.”

Jami Mathewson
Program Manager, Wiki Education Foundation