Wikipedia: Not so evil after all

Wikipedia receives plenty of disparagement these days in the world of education, but much of the disgruntlement is misplaced or is at least too narrowly focused on Wikipedia as perhaps the most conspicuous, convenient target. The vehemence of the anti-Wikipedia sentiments from fellow educators can sometimes be downright intimidating, but I would like to argue briefly on behalf of Wikipedia’s science topic pages as one useful tool in science education and research.

screenshot from Wikipedia's "sequence alignment" page

Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for learning; however, just as a shovel should neither be faulted for failing to be a scalpel nor accused of missing the mark as a jackhammer, Wikipedia is a tool, not the tool. Wikipedia cannot be expected to take the place of peer-reviewed scholarly publications, even though some of the entries could likely pass muster if it came to it. While Wikipedia has historically suffered in the eyes of educators from the stigma of untrustworthiness, I would ask anyone whether the majority of other readily accessed sources on the web are much more reliable, particularly for the sort of topics and subjects most likely to be looked up by the public. If anything, Wikipedia’s explicit construction rules inspire a level of healthy skepticism that ought to be just as appropriate for other web content. To the extent that “Wikipedia” has become fashionable shorthand for much of our web content and its ills, it reflects both Wikipedia’s immense success and the need for educators to more clearly articulate and address our concerns regarding web content in general.

So, at the fingertips of an educator or student, what is Wikipedia? It is a tool for quickly accessing answers to questions, where a nuanced piece of scholarly research is utter overkill, and it is a starting point for more exhaustive research. Is it utterly reliable? No. But then neither are the decade-old biology reference texts on my shelf if I want to know more about the role of microRNAs in gene regulation, for example. Does Wikipedia provide the authoritative content of a refereed review paper from a scientific journal? Not necessarily, but it may get me closer to finding that paper. In the meantime, a series of Wikipedia pages can help me begin to grasp the general topography of a topic I poorly understand, and even help me make much better sense of the jargon and verbage avalanching at me from the pages of the peer-reviewed papers and books sitting in my lap.

You think I jest? Perhaps a simple example will suffice. My turning point regarding Wikipedia came this last summer in the bowels of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. I had just begun a stint working under an NSF Research Experience for Teachers grant in the Herpetology Department. My task was to extract some DNA from a battery of frogs from Africa, isolate some particular fragments, determine their sequences, and then plug those data into larger datasets so that we could refine our understanding of the evolutionary history of those frogs relative to what was already known about them. The chief difficulty was that my knowledge of everything from PCR to phylogenies was “teaching knowledge” more of the general, conceptual sort and I really had no idea how it all worked when plunked down in the lab. Between runs up to the molecular lab on the next floor, I camped in front of a computer in the Herp offices with a pile of books and papers attempting to better understand what I was doing, both functionally and conceptually. Bouncing back and forth between the real and virtual pages, I quickly found that perhaps five or six out of the eight or so simultaneously running browser pages were opened to some topic in Wikipedia. No Hollywood starlets. No controversial periods in American history. No biographies of prominent politicians. I was trying to figure out “bootstrapping,” “Bayesian inferences,” “sequence alignment,” effects of “annealing temperatures” in PCR sensitivity, “noise-signal ratios” in “capillary sequencing,” and much, much more in a short period of time.

from Wikipedia's "chi-squared distribution" page

If anything, I too often discovered that Wikipedia has many science-related pages that are written by and for people immersed in their relatively arcane field of study and thus required ample use of the imbedded links to tease out a basic understanding of the page I originally looked up. Try looking up “chi-squared distribution” for a little flavor of this. I felt fairly confident in much of that information solely on the basis of what I call “safety in obscurity,” in addition to finding that I never ran across meaningful discrepancies between my printed and virtual pages. Since that time I have made frequent use of Wikipedia for both “short answer” and “jumping-off point” purposes. I have been seldom disappointed.

I knew a teacher who had a small poster taped to the front of his desk: “Think for yourself – the teacher may be wrong.” This is some refreshing truth in advertisement which we might do well to help our students also to apply to websites, textbooks, hypotheses, and so on. Teaching that set of skills is very difficult and I claim no special mastery of that pedagogical thicket. In light of the difficulty, one alternative is to try to teach students to stick with only “trustworthy” sources of information, though they may be prohibitively difficult to access, unnecessarily jargoned for the purpose at hand, and ultimately only relatively more trustworthy.

Jeff Witters

Why would anyone go out in -10F windchill?

Hope everyone else is enjoying our Little Ice Age weather!

So why would I go out in such lousy weather? Well, it certainly puts a finer point on any musings regarding metabolism, body size and natural selection to stand in the same Arctic air as a tiny black-capped chickadee foraging for nearly invisible insect pupa on branch tips. While I did, in fact, muse on the different energetic constraints faced by the chickadee in contrast to a crow-sized pileated woodpecker who allowed relatively close approach, I braved the flesh-freezing weather mostly to beef up my “year list” for birds seen in 2010.

I went to the Overland Park Arboretum from about 10:30-11:45 to become their first visitor for the day. The bird feeder clearing down in the woods was hopping and the observation hut at least kept out the howling wind. I got a high count of 18 cardinals. I’m sure there were more, and they were a sight to see! In addition to the handful of white-throats and several song sparrows, there were three fox sparrows. A female purple finch put in a cameo appearance. In better weather, the hut is a fine place to spend a while, even for the non-birders. Set in a clearing in the woods, it is surrounded by feeders and allow a person to view birds near enough that binoculars are not necessary. Come back in spring or summer and you could be treated to close views of indigo buntings — tiny, shockingly blue birds. They have the sense to head for central America, while those of us with different instincts trudge about in the frozen woods in January. And, unlike the sharp-shinned hawk watching the birds at the feeders for an opportunity, I wasn’t even looking for something warm to eat.

Jeff Witters

New website for Baker Wetlands

Sunset Just wanted to spread the word that Baker Wetlands on the south edge of Lawrence has a new website, thanks to Roger Boyd and others. As one of the best and most easily accessed northeast KS wetland sites it is a real testament to the power of restoring hydrology to former cornfields (“past wholesale anthropogenic modification,” in the parlance) to allow natural communities to reestablish. Whatever you may know about the years (decades?) of the variety of controversies centered on the wetlands, the restoration of the big chunks of newly acquired mitigation land will be fascinating to watch unfold. If you haven’t been by the Wetlands for a while, get out there while the restoration area is still fairly bare, just so you have a “time zero” reference for later visits in years to come. Few other places in this part of the state offer least bitterns and other goodies within such a short walk from the car.

The website has a detailed FAQ section that illuminates some of the history of the site and its controversies, great maps of the present site, various species lists, tons of other info about the place, as well as some really interesting photo albums with beautiful photographs. Check it out!

Baker Wetlands

Jeff Witters

Milkweeds & radiotagging Monarchs

Chip Taylor and crew got some blog time for their recent foray into radiotracking monarch butterflies for short distances. There are some great photos in the blog, and apparently Nat Geo was filming the project for a later program.

Keep an eye on those milkweed patches. Not only will you soon find those aposematically colored caterpillars munching on the toxic leaves, but the plants are one of the better places to see ant/aphid mutualism at work. I’ve seen several species of ants tending their aphid flocks in just the last week. Once the inflorescence opens, the milkweed patches become pollinator magnets. If I might dare improve upon the Bard, that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet, but never so fine as a milkweed. So, teachers on summer vacation, don’t forget to stop and smell the milkweeds!

Jeff Witters

The Thin Green Line

There will be another showing Tuesday night on KCPT (HD2) of this terrific program. In fairness, I must give notice of some conflict of interest. My wife and I spent a summer in Panama with Karen Lips at El Cope, the latter person and place featured at length in the program. We were there before the streams went silent from chytrid fungus. Tough to see it now knowing all those amazing frogs are gone.

It also features Tyrone Hayes of atrazine fame, the Amphibian Ark in El Valle (Panama), and a variety of other researchers from around the world. If you’re looking for a great bit of media for keeping flagging attention spans in line as we head into the homestretch, the I think the program has some serious potential. At least I’ll be showing it to my seniors!

Jeff Witters