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Resource and Environmental Management

Is there a place for Wikipedia in academia? SFU REM students improve their scientific communication and source evaluation in unconventional writing assignment

December 15, 2022

While Wikipedia may be the most popular tool for casual information searches, the open-source, online encyclopedia has not traditionally held any value in academia — but could it?

In an assignment designed to improve scientific communication and evidence evaluation, students in professor Chelsea Little’s Intro to Applied Ecology (REM 211) class revised Wikipedia articles about some of Canada’s protected parks and wildlife management areas.

Groups were tasked to update an online article with accurate and comprehensive societal and scientific information about their assigned area’s ecology and history, researching the species found there, human impacts, and any past and present involvement of Indigenous peoples in its establishment and management.

Many of the articles touch on important issues in resource management in Canada, offering an opportunity for students to do a case study on some of the topics they are discussing in class, Little says, adding that it is especially relevant to resource and environmental management majors who want to work for Parks Canada.

The unconventional writing assignment presents many other learning opportunities, including communicating scientific information to a broad audience, gathering information, and evaluating sources. “They have to really weigh the types of sources they can use. Many have asked, ‘how do I know if something is a reliable source?’ And I think that’s something we encounter in society all the time,” says Little.

She points to the prevalence of miscommunicated — and at times intentionally misleading — information in science as one of the key challenges students must navigate.

“The biggest challenge was finding and evaluating the quality of information out there, which is different from a research project where I may say, ‘go to the library and look for articles,’” she says. “Certainly, they’re using some of those sources in this project, but many different types of sources as well.”

Students also had to mind their general audience, condensing their findings and limiting the scientific jargon typically expected in a research paper.

“These articles are usually pretty concise. You’re not supposed to ramble on with a million details; you’re supposed to highlight the most important things. Which I think is also a really good skill,” says Little.

Suzy Choe, a student in Little’s class, says it was good practice for writing about resource management issues in school and her future career.

“Not all readers share the same level or background of knowledge,” she says. “Writing with clarity and conciseness and actively seeking advice from peers will help me become a better writer.”

It is not just students who benefit. Their work also helps inform the greater global community, as most articles initially lacked content. “Seeing how little there is about these places indicates a gap in the information available to the public,” Little says. “They can help with that.”

Posting their work online can be gratifying for students, giving their work more meaning and allowing them to show off what they have learned. Choe says she felt a greater responsibility to deliver accurate information in this assignment because it was posted publicly, but she says it was a positive pressure. “I enjoyed the assignment,” she says. “Our contribution is now available online! That’s super cool!”