Education/News/August 2017/interview with Kobi Shvarzbord

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“This Idea, That Seemed to Me So Remote, Have Become Real”[edit]

Author: Shai Katz, Education and Training coordinator, WMIL

Kobi Shvarzbord
A visit at the ATLAS particle detector - view from outside
A visit at the ATLAS particle detector - view from inside
The ATLAS particle detector - a photo that was created and uploaded to WikiCommons & Hebrew Wikipedia by one of the students in the project.
Students who wrote an article on the PS particle accelerator received an explanation about it from one of its managers.
Kobi and his students celebrate the complition of the project at the Itai Silberschmidt Scientific Conference, Leo Baeck Education Center.

An interview with Kobi Shvarzbord, Director of Science and Technology, Leo Baeck Education Center (Haifa, Israel), who leads an outstanding project for the writing of articles on particle physics

Q: Tell us about the article writing project - who are the students you have chosen? What are the subjects they write about?

The article writing project has been going on for two years now and will soon enter its third year. The participating students are 12th graders who study physics in a special intensive program at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. they participated a unique program focused on the study of particle physics. The highlight of this program is a visit at the largest particle physics laboratory in the world - CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), in the border of Switzerland and France, and particularly, LHC - the world's largest and most complex particle accelerator.

The article writing project goes hand in hand with the mission - the students write articles on the Hebrew Wikipedia about particle physics. The idea is to have an added value to the mission - the students are not merely on the receiving end, rather they also offer something, and not only on the school level, but also on the national level.

Q: Tell us about the process of work throughout the year.

Ahead of the journey to CERN, the participating students take a preparatory course about particle physics (a subject not included in the regular high-school curriculum). This course also serves to create social bonds among the students and to expose them to the work at CERN. The students start the article writing project already at this stage. In the first session of the course, the students are paired up. We assign a writing subject to each pair by drawing lots. The students receive a guide on how to write an article, which was written in cooperation between Wikimedia Israel and me. I go over the time framework with the students, and then they start working by themselves.

The work goes on outside Wikipedia, on Google Docs documents, until the content is ripe and can be uploaded onto Wikipedia. Throughout the process, the students write drafts and submit them to me. In between these stages, I hold personal meetings with them, to see their progress and offer directions and guidance.

At the end of the course, there is the journey itself. For five days the students hear lectures in physics and tour the CERN facilities. The students may take advantage of the lectures and tours to inquire about certain issues related to their writing subject, so that their article be more accurate and profound.

When they are back home, the students finish the writing process. They make corrections to their drafts and add information they learned during the visit to CERN. They also incorporate photos they took there. At this stage, they send me a final version of their article. When I give them the green light, they upload their article onto Wikipedia themselves.

The process is concluded with the granting of letters of appreciation from the school and Wikimedia Israel. This takes place at the Itai Silberschmidt Scientific Conference that we hold in our school every year.

Q: Some concerns could naturally arise before launching an article writing project. Could you tell us about them?

Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit. I was therefore concerned that after all the hard work the students would invest, someone would delete the articles or change their content significantly. Gladly, this concern went away completely after I saw that the products had been well received.

Another concern I had at the beginning was about the students not being skilled enough in writing articles about professional subjects. I could see how students would write articles about subjects less complex like persons or streets, but writing about subjects in physics, and particularly about subjects in particle physics physics, seemed to me almost impossible.

The penny dropped after I took a teachers’ course led by Wikimedia Israel. I realized it was possible and I was ready to plunge into it. As I went through the process of teaching, which was accompanied by Wikimedia Israel, I saw the students could actually do it, providing they receive my guidance and direction.

I was also concerned about the fact that there was no external expert who could vouch for the contents the students uploaded. However, in the process of work, I realized I could be the authority, and if I was not sure about my knowledge, the students could contact external experts and request feedback and guidance.

Today I know a student can do it, and I can guide them through the process. I am also aware that the collaborative nature of Wikipedia allows other users to further expand the uploaded contents in the future.

All this has turned my attitude toward Wikipedia into a warmer approach. I have become an “ambassador” of Wikipedia, and I defend it when a cynical remark about it is made in my presence. I see it as a full-fledged encyclopedia that is worth using.

Q: Beside the community, which benefits from an available scientific content, do the students also gain from the process of writing articles?

The students gain better understanding of the content. They acquire writing skills, and, thanks to reading the foreign references, they also improve their level of English.

But not less important - the students gain a sense of competence and an experience that makes them proud. Many of them did not believe that at their young age, they could write an article on Wikipedia about a professional subject. At the end of the day, they found out it was within their reach.

When the first article is online, I send a link to it on the mission’s WhatsApp group. The students react with excitement and feel they have done something meaningful. This sense of meaningfulness is also reflected in a student’s description of the process:

“The first feeling I had when I heard I was going to write an article on Wikipedia was concern. I couldn’t understand how I, a 16-year-old girl with no past experience, would be able to write such an article. We read articles, we went over dozens of websites about the article’s subject and we translated from English into Hebrew. The work was indeed hard. We managed to cope with the difficulties and learned a lot… I underwent a significant learning process revolving around the article, and I learned about myself, that I can cope with difficulties and concerns, take help from the people around me, and achieve everything if I have the will” (Maya Shattal, published on Ironet, a local Haifa weekly, issue no. 593, 25 June 2017).

Q: What about you? Do you feel you have gained something too from this process of writing articles?

I feel I have been enriched in several aspects. First, I also gained a strong sense of competence. This idea that seemed to me so remote, perhaps even impractical, have become real. Beyond that, I became proud of the high-quality product and of the students - for their work. Finally, I feel I benefited from guiding the students through this process of work. Along the way, I learned how to guide such a process and it contributed to my professional development.

Q: Many teachers feel frustrated about Wikipedia. They say the high availability of the information allows students to collect “ready-made” information and simply “copy-paste” it without processing it and reaching full understanding. Do you have any message to these teachers?

I think teachers should realize several things:

  • The reliability of Wikipedia.
  • How is it different from the old-time printed encyclopedia? Didn’t the students copy word-for-word back then? The only difference is that back then, they had to actually write the text, and nowadays they can just mark it and copy it. This way or another, we, as teachers, need to teach and support these skills of summarizing and writing, so that the students perform what we expect from them.
  • Do you want students to know how to use Wikipedia sensibly? Have educational activities and be mediators. Don’t expect them to know it by themselves, but help and guide them.

Some examples of the students’ products (Hebrew):

Translation: Dror Kamir, WMIL