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From the Margins to the Center: Students Edit Wikipedia to Tell Stories of Women in Science

screenshot of wiki

By Jenae Cohn

When Meg Formato’s PWR students logged onto Wikipedia during class time, the room fell completely silent. Scrolling through pages of articles on women engineers, women mathematicians, and the STEM pipeline, Meg’s students were not just conducting research; rather, they were changing the ways that research gets told by editing Wikipedia for themselves.

Wikipedia, a major source for information on the Web, houses extensive articles about popular science. However, even as Wikipedia boasts an “objective” ethos and a mission devoted to sharing only “fact-based” encyclopedia articles, Wikipedia’s notoriously white and male editorship often leads to the exclusion of stories from women and people of color. Meg’s students, already aware of the many critiques of Wikipedia available, took it upon themselves to bring what they learned in their Advanced PWR class to the larger world of Wikipedia at the end of the fall quarter as part of a group final project.

“It impressed me how the students let their own use of Wikipedia guide their choices for where and what to edit,” said Meg. “They recognized that Wikipedia is a resource that often functions as a first-pass for learning about a topic, so they chose to edit the kinds of general pages that direct users toward more detailed information: lists of women engineers and mathematicians and an overview page of the STEM Pipeline.”

Meg’s fall Advanced PWR class, “In the Margins: Race, Gender and the Rhetoric of Science,” focused on the complex relationships between gender, race and science to consider the historical and current under-representation of women and people of color in science and technology. While students composed research projects of their own, students also collaborated throughout the course to create shared resources and bring together what they studied in their research with current events and conversations online. For example, in addition to editing Wikipedia, students also curated a Twitter account, @labmargins, where they circulated and shared current stories from around the world about women and people of color in science.

Meg explained that she chose to use Twitter because, “Twitter is a kind of space where scholars doing intersectional work on gender, race and science often connect. It’s also a place where scholars connect their research to real world topics in real time. I wanted students to witness those conversations taking place and have the opportunity to participate in them.”

From curating a Twitter account to editing Wikipedia, students saw engaging with a public audience beyond the classroom to be a valuable exercise.

As one student reflected, “A central insight for me was how Wikipedia’s requirement for ‘neutral’ content is often used to edit out women’s history. I’ve become more aware of what can get coded into the idea that something is ‘neutral.’”

Indeed, other students felt that representing the role of women in STEM on Wikipedia was a way to combat stereotypes: “The role that stereotypes play for women in STEM is not a vague hypothesis; it is reality, and I’m proud that we were able to write a section that explains that, supported by good evidence,” reported another student. “People reading about women in engineering should know why women were shut out for so long.”

Some students felt so inspired by the project that they’ve wanted to keep maintaining an active engagement on Wikipedia.

“Once I started editing I realized right away that I’ll never be able to stop,” a third student shaered. “I was a passive user of Wikipedia. Now every page I’m on, I want to change something.”

If you find this project in Meg’s class inspiring, ample resources for incorporating Wikipedia into class assignments is available from organizations like the Wiki Edu Foundation. Some of the resources available from the Wiki Edu foundation include short articles on why editing Wikipedia can be an empowering exercise for students and interactive tutorials to help students learn the technical details essential to editing a Wikipedia article effectively.