URI oceanography students update Wikipedia to share what they have learned

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – December 2, 2010 – Students at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography have turned their biological oceanography course into a public service lesson by taking what they have learned in class and updating dozens of entries on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.

Assistant Professor Susanne Menden-Deuer asked her 21 students to identify a biological oceanography term or topic on Wikipedia whose definition, description or references are substandard and substantially improve the entry based on class lessons and readings. Students could also create a new Wikipedia entry for terms not yet included.

The 17 million articles on Wikipedia have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all can be edited by anyone with access to the site.

“Wikipedia is an amazing resource enabling people to seek high quality information, learn about new topics, and use the extensive cross-linking to do independent research and gain in-depth knowledge,” said Menden-Deuer. “It is my goal to educate students to contribute their substantive knowledge to the public, whether it be through a Wikipedia entry or any other form of public engagement.”

Students updated a wide range of Wikipedia entries, including those on the microbial loop, the Benguela Current, harmful algal blooms, Alvinocarididae shrimp, marine snow, plankton and wastewater, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and prebiotic arsenic. The assignment was worth 10 percent of their grade.

According to Menden-Deuer, the assignment teaches students to communicate with a wide range of audiences, reference sources correctly, use peer-reviewed journals, and evaluate written materials. Most importantly, she said, it gets them to think about how to make a contribution to society.

“At this point in their careers, students are mostly taking steps that will benefit themselves and their future studies, and eventually they’ll give back to society,” she said. “But why not get them started on giving back now?”

Student Conor McManus of Milton, Mass., updated the Wikipedia page on stable isotope analysis in aquatic ecosystems, a topic he chose because he had learned a little about it as an undergraduate and wanted to learn more.

“The largest challenge I faced was trying to find a medium between writing for a scientific expert in this field and for someone with no understanding of stable isotopes at all,” he said. “It was a fun project and extremely innovative, and I still learned as much as I would have if I had written a research paper on the topic.”

Justine Sauvage was especially pleased to know that the assignment meant that her work would likely be useful to other users of Wikipedia for years to come. A native of Brussels, Belgium, she updated the Wikipedia page on biogenic silica.

“By writing a Wikipedia page, I got to think a bit more deeply about this ‘big-online-encyclopedia’ concept and the importance of it. I believe that in the future I’ll have a greater tendency to edit, upgrade and create Wikipedia pages that I have some kind of interest in.”

Katherine McCusker of Weston, Conn., chose to create a page for the term “rare biosphere,” which hadn’t previously been included on Wikipedia. But she immediately ran into a roadblock.

“There are people who manage Wikipedia and make sure that all changes are reasonable, though they are not always spot on,” McCusker said. “My article was immediately marked for ‘speedy deletion’ upon submission because of the word biosphere in my topic title. Wikipedia reviewers thought that the page I had created should be deleted and merged with the biosphere page. In order to avoid this I had to argue my case to the Wikipedia managers, and in time they saw that the rare biosphere is not a biosphere per se.”

Her entry can be viewed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_biosphere. “And,” she added, “in the spirit of Wikipedia, feel free to edit and change it.”