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Biology class uses Wikipedia to address gender gaps in science

Associate Professor Aarthi Ashok co-created a new assignment that had students write Wikipedia pages about women scientists (photo by Ken Jones)

“Don’t use Wikipedia” is a common phrase in education, but a biology course at the University of Toronto Scarborough has found a way to use it for an important reason.

A new assignment had students write for the site to address gender gaps in science. The semester-long project was part of Proteins from life to death, a C-level biology course. It asked students to make a Wikipedia-style page about a woman scientist that could be understood across the scientific community.

“These women are role models to both men and women interested in science, but are not well-known by people outside of their field,” says Teaching Assistant Trisha Mahtani, who co-created the project with Aarthi Ashok, associate professor, teaching stream.

“Researching their path to success can help budding scientists understand what is required of them to pursue their dream career, and how their undergraduate courses are helping them achieve this.” 

An important goal was to increase awareness of both women, and the lack of women, in science. Mahtani and Ashok were inspired by the Wiki Education Foundation’s Year of Science, held last year. In efforts to close the site’s gender gap in writers and content, Wikipedia offered resources to help students write biographical articles about women scientists.

"(Ashok's) goal for this project was that with the motivation of filling a knowledge gap on Wikipedia, these students would be motivated to work on this project and really benefit from it," Mahtani says. "The pages were impressively realistic and informative."

Students were also required to present their finished pages and research to the class. Though none of the pages were published on Wikipedia, U of T Scarborough students Pratyasha Agrawal and Jerena Selvanayagam said the encyclopedia-style assignment introduced them to several women scientists.

“I feel before this, we were kept in the shadows with a lot of the accomplished women,” Agrawal says. “If I was told to name a women scientist that I believed contributed the most, my first thought would jump to Marie Curie. However, there (are) so many others who dedicated themselves to research.”

Mahtani says the project helped students address gender barriers in science, and is worth repeating for future classes.

“I wasn't really aware of this stigma associated with women and science until we discussed it in class,” Selvanayagam says. “More should be done to promote the recognition of female scientists' contributions to the scientific field and this was a great start point.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough