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In response to the outrageous cost of chemistry textbooks, Dr. Delmar Larsen (UC Davis Department of Chemistry) started the ChemWiki three years ago. Part of the Dynamic Textbook Project, this student-faculty collaborative project is an open online resource with modules that students can explore and instructors can assign. In three years, ChemWiki has grown considerably, boasting 60,000 hours of confirmed reading time and approximately 5 million visitors per year from several different universities. The wiki has also replaced the lab manual for an undergraduate course at Davis.

Students write about half of the modules (often as extra credit or for honors contracts), and faculty members contribute their notes or write the rest of the modules. Dr. Larsen likens organizing the content on the wiki to building a brick wall: “I have access to a lot of different bricks (individual faculty members’ content) but I have to take those and somehow make a wall. Making a wall with different sized bricks can be difficult, so we break them down into smaller pieces and put them in the same format. Where there are holes you need mortar, and that’s where the students come in.”

The idea, Dr. Larsen explains, is “to generate an environment that is flexible enough to let faculty construct a textbook that fits exactly what they want. Theoretically, we’re making an infinite number of textbooks.” To assist faculty in making these selections, the wiki has color-coded titles to indicate the reliability of a given module and a blue shield that indicates the level of the module (lower division, honors, grad, etc). For more information, visit the FAQ.

Building an interactive textbook for chemistry is just the beginning – BioWiki is currently in development and growing at about 400 hits per week, and the end goal is to build a six-subject STEMWiki. A Student Ability Rating and Inquiry System (SARIS) is also on the horizon. This database of homework questions will track student performance and provide a consistent list of questions for faculty to assign. As Dr. Larsen puts it, “This is a non-stop, fully integrated resource.”

To make sure this incredible resource continues to be successful, faculty support is needed. Faculty in chemistry, physics, math, statistics, biology, or geology can contribute notes or write modules. Faculty in the arts could offer extra credit to students who make graphics. Module reviewers and editors are also needed, and you can help in this way even if you don’t have extensive knowledge of the field. You can also help by simply passing along the project’s mission to faculty in your department.

“Electronic textbooks are the future,” says Dr. Larsen. “Anyone paying attention to it knows that. The question isn’t what the future is; it’s whether we will be leaders in the field or followers. It doesn’t take much to be a leader – the Dynamic Textbook Project is a good idea and that’s why it’s working.”

UC Davis ChemWiki:

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