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 Dr. 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 Dr. Ceballos on designing the course and evaluating final projects. Dr. 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.
Dr. 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.”