Bringing Together Wikipedia and Teens

Over the past two years, more and more museums have become interested in sharing their expertise with Wikipedia, but the primary question remains how?  Once you find the resources, how do you get them into Wikipedia? Museums are also considering ways to provide unique learning opportunities for their communities. At The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, I had the chance to resolve these two needs with one program: the MAP Wikipedia project.

MAP is the Museum Apprentice Program, a project-based youth program that brings together 13-18 year old teens to volunteer and work on initiatives that relate to museum exhibits and programs. For our project, the MAPs worked in five teams to research iconic Children’s Museum objects, learn Wikipedia, and create new articles with assistance from museum staff and custom guides. The project encompassed two months of their year-long program and resulted in five extensive Wikipedia articles. Since then, we have begun to roll out QRpedia codes in the exhibits that link to the articles that the students created, in addition to adding Wikipedia widgets to the museum’s website that link to the articles.

The project proved to be an overwhelmingly positive experience for the entire museum. It became a cross-departmental effort to gather resources for each team of students: units of study from school services, research from curators, exhibit planning documents from designers, and interviews from museum experts. Everyone was enthusiastic about the project’s potential — especially the students. Editing Wikipedia is the ultimate authentic learning opportunity. The students quickly understood that their research was not just going to be handed in and forgotten, but would instead be shared with a global audience. Because of their work, people from around the world can learn about Bucky the Teenage T-Rex or the Chihuly sculpture, “Fireworks of Glass,” without ever entering the museum. As one student put it, “This is definitely the most legit project that we’ve ever done.”

This program was a proof of concept for something I’ve been mulling over for some time: Why can’t museums teach their visitors how to edit Wikipedia and share museum resources at the same time? Through this project, the students learned important research skills within a collaborative, online community. They also formed their own opinions about the role of Wikipedia in their lives and in their classrooms. After experiencing the extensive process behind editing Wikipedia, they gained a new appreciation for a resource that teachers often discourage.

I think one student said it best: “(Wikipedia is) discredited. It’s not given as much credit as it should be….I still don’t think teachers will give it due credit, but now I think I will give it more credit than before.” …Changing perspectives, learning something new, and sharing information. Isn’t that what museums are all about?

Wikipedia Creative Commons photo by Lori Byrd Phillips

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