Course uses Wikipedia as tool for teaching science translation

ergonomic best practices in card dealing
Michael Parenteau, MPH ’19, demonstrated ergonomic best practices in the casino industry in photos he took for the Wikipedia page he created.

December 20, 2018—The website of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is packed with information about workplace hazards from abrasive blasting to venomous spiders. How do most people find these pages? Wikipedia.

To help ensure that the initial information web searchers encounter is up-to-date and accurate, NIOSH has been working since 2012 to expand and update occupational health and safety content on Wikipedia—a site for which users write entries and rigorously edit each other’s work. The agency’s efforts include collaborating with universities to bring the platform into the classroom to encourage students to contribute to the process.

At Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, students taking the Introduction to the Workplace Environment course this fall updated or created Wikipedia pages as their final projects. They contributed content on occupational hazards in a range of industries, including exposure to heavy metals at electronic waste processing facilities in low-income countries, and exposure by U.S. Air Force pilots to hydrazine, a chemical used in rocket fuel that has been linked to lung cancer.

It’s the second time that instructor Diana Ceballos, a research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health, incorporated Wikipedia into the course curriculum (the first time was last spring). “In other classes, students spend a lot of time writing papers that only the teacher reads,” she said. “They love this project because they feel that they are writing for an audience that cares about the topic, and that their work matters.”

Several representatives from NIOSH worked with Ceballos on designing the course and evaluating final projects. Thais Morata, a research audiologist with the agency’s Division of Applied Research and Technology, was impressed by the students in both the spring and fall courses. She noted that they added more content to their pages than was required by the assignment, including images.

Morata said, “I found the extra work they put in and their enthusiasm for communicating science to the public surprising, and I have been teaching for more than 20 years.”

NIOSH provided the class with a list of pages in need of updating on Wikipedia, but students were free to choose other pages that sparked their interest. They went through training on the Wiki Education platform, which prepared them for the challenges of translating their work into simpler language for the general reader—and getting their contributions past the strict oversight of Wikipedia’s vast user community.

Christopher Scheibler
Christopher Scheibler, MPH ’19, presented his contributions to the Wikipedia page on hydrazine

During final class presentations on December 17, students described the project’s rewards and challenges. While they were working on their pages, some had their efforts questioned by other Wikipedia users, and even woke up the day after working on an entry to find that large chunks of their contributions had been removed.

Michael Parenteau, MPH ’19, a physician in the Harvard Chan Occupational & Environmental Health Residency program, focused on casino workers’ health. He added an extensive employee occupational health and safety section to the main page on the topic, only to see it reduced to two sentences. Undaunted, he added a completely new page covering hazards and best practices for card dealers, hotel housekeepers, servers, and other employees—even modeling for photos to illustrate the concepts.

The challenges were worth it for the real-world impact, students said. Hussam Kurdi, MPH ’19, who was inspired by his experience as a resident on an oncology ward to add occupational health content to the Wikipedia page on chemotherapy drugs, said that he was pleased to know that his work will be available as a resource for the public.

Amy Roeder

Photos: Michael Parenteau, Sarah Sholes