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Wiki-book on chlorine heralds new style of undergraduate teaching

Students learn from each other, and predecessors, in UCL collaborative book project.

Ed Yong

Between 2000 and 2005, undergraduate students at UCL developed a Wiki-book—a collaborative text where each year’s students improves and expands on the work of the previous year. The finished product is a full-blown academic monograph called An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Technology, Medicine and War, published this month by the British Society for the History of Science.

This new way of teaching is the brainchild of Dr Hasok Chang, a Reader in Philosophy of Science at UCL. Nature Network London spoke to Dr Chang about his project.

How did the idea for this project come about?

It was all about teaching. Students usually write essays with standard answers to standard questions. I thought it would be more interesting to have them do some original research, but we wanted to produce something that was publishable and wouldn’t just gather dust in a pile. That’s when we came up with this idea of inheritance, where a group of students would write some papers and pass it down to the next year’s group.

How did that work in practice?

I let the first year students choose from a set of interesting topics on chlorine, from its history to its use in chemical warfare. They did what they could and the following year’s students were told to choose which topics they wanted to pick up. The students always submitted their research notes so the next year could avoid reinventing the wheel. By the fourth year, I began to see that it would really work as a whole book

How did the students take to the process?

Initially, I don’t think they quite believed that it would work so they needed a lot of confidence-boosting. Once each student identified a good question and got into their project, they were off, but getting them to that point was a challenge.

What made you choose chlorine as a topic?

Recently, there have been many attempts to write ‘object biographies’ which try to throw new light on the history of science, by focusing on objects rather than people. I thought I could try this with chlorine because, through my own research, I kept seeing interesting stories involving it in different fields.

The theme of the book is controversy. Why has chlorine had such a controversial history?

Part of the reason is that it’s very reactive. It does nasty things, which led to its involvement in chemical weapons, and it has also been used in destructive compounds like the organochlorines—DDT, Agent Orange and so on.

The reactivity also made its basic chemistry quite difficult. Chlorine was never isolated as a pure substance until the 1770s even though it’s in salt and other everyday compounds. You can’t get it out because it’s held tightly by other elements and once it was isolated, it was very difficult to tell what it was.

Scheele, the man who discovered chlorine, called it dephlogisticated muriatic acid (the 18th century name for hydrochloric acid). He thought that it was the acid minus phlogiston, the element of fire. Lavoisier, who disproved phlogiston theory, believed that it was oxygenated hydrochloric acid.

Into this controversial debate came Humphrey Davy who argued that it was a chemical element and called it chlorine, referring to its yellow-green colour. It took a long time for that view to be accepted.

Do you think that your teaching method can address problems in modern undergraduate teaching?

Yes, and I’m even more convinced having finished. Essentially, the standard method of teaching is wasting a lot of everyone’s time. We’re giving students these artificial, made-up questions and making them work very hard at answering them.

We could really improve things by giving them something real to do. In medicine, students treat real patients so that they’re doing something useful while they’re learning. I want to do that in every field of learning. Why get the best and brightest people in the country, put them into universities for three years and produce nothing in that time?

Building on the work of your peers is very much like science as a whole isn’t it?

Exactly. Students usually think they need to learn from famous people but the inheritance mechanism taught them that their peers and predecessors produced real secondary sources that they need to learn from.

They also learned that these sources are not infallible and that’s not something they can normally do if they’re given books by an authoritative figure they’ve never met. By realising that these sources were produced by another human being, they learn to have that critical level of engagement.

Do you use Wikipedia at all?

Some people have pointed out to me that it does have a very similar structure. I tell students that they should use every source, including Wikipedia, but with the usual warnings. Academics are wrong to say that Wikipedia can’t be trusted while other sources can. There’s a whole spectrum of reliability in sources, with no fine dividing line. Stupid things can get through peer review if the referees aren’t careful.

Ed Yong blogs at Not exactly Rocket Science.


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