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Thursday, October 21, 2021

UC Davis chemwiki continues to integrate and expand

Chemistry Professor Delmar Larsen’s Chemwiki project began with a simple desire to make his students’ lives a little easier. What started out as little more than a fledgling idea has developed into a concrete resource that is already impacting students’ lives.

At its current stage, the Chemwiki database consists of 3,000 information modules. The content discussed ranges from general topics to various specifics. Each module contains anywhere from three to 10 pages of material when printed out. The pages are intended to function collectively as a supplement to beginning chemistry textbooks. These books can be very costly, and do not always prove adequate in explaining concepts.

“I get the feeling that the book skips steps from time to time,” said Carlos Espinoza, a sophomore psychology major taking Chemistry 2A. “Sometimes, it just assumes that you understand a concept and then moves on to the next one right away. At some points, I end up feeling lost.”

Larsen envisions Chemiwiki to eventually replace the textbook as a primary resource altogether.

“It ultimately comes out to be around $450 for the first year of chemistry. Sophomore students end up paying around $350. Altogether, that’s 1.2 to 1.3 million dollars that [all] Davis students spend on chemistry textbooks for the first two years,” Larsen said. “I want to get rid of that. I want to make it integrated and free for people, and what I’m trying to get is other students and people to help out with that.”

Larsen handles the administrative and organizational aspects of the enterprise. He is heavily involved in design, implementation, publicity and money issues associated with the management of the site. He estimates the amount of hours that he has invested in the project as being in the early thousands. Being a full-time professor at the university requires additional dedication and focus, so as a result he is not able to edit much of the site content himself. According to Larsen, that’s where the students come in.

“Extra credit is offered in classes to encourage students to contribute. A handful of srudents work on the project as a part of their honors contracts. A few students do it to get letters of recommendation for medical or pharmacy school. Occasionally, I even make it a forced requirement,” he said.

Part of Larsen’s aim is to help college students realize that complaining is much less useful than actively making things cheaper for themselves. Chemwiki provides an innovative medium for students to solve their own problems and in doing so gives them a sense of control in hectic times.

ASUCD Senator Liz Walz admires the project for its multifaceted approach.

“There are lots of benefits,” Walz said. “It greatly reduces textbook costs, and its expansion opens up a lot of job opportunities. We’re trying to get CalPIRG on board so that they can get the info out and help us promote. ”

While Wikipedia suffers as a credible resource because everyone can edit its pages, Larsen hopes to fix this problem with a “temperered-control approach.” With this method, professionals and specialists would edit modules in the interest of accuracy.

However, hiring a reliable team for this purpose is currently out of the project’s scope given its limited funding. Walz will be introducing a resolution to the Senate tonight to hopefully have ASUCD endorse the project.

“[This endorsement] will help a lot in getting the grant that Professor Larsen is applying for,” Walz said. “If the grant doesn’t go through, then things will be move at the same pace that they are at now, which is fine. But we will eventually need that money to get chemistry experts to look at the info as insurance and make sure that its right. We need to give them incentive to edit the modules and make sure they’re correct.”

As of right now, things are certainly progressing. The website receives 4,500 visitors per day. In the past, only 20 percent have been from the Davis-Sacramento area. Eighty to 90 percent of the hits come from outside of UC Davis due to ads posted on Google. In total, Chemwiki has seen half a million visitors this year, with 1.2 million pages viewed.

“This year, we are 10 to 20 times more popular than last year. The more people see it, the more people find it. In a way, it’s pseudo-exponential growth,” Larsen said.

In the past, only UC Davis students had access to Chemwiki through Smartsite. That changed when a student built a server that allowed use by anyone in the world. Chemwiki has gotten hits from locations in 200 different countries.

Walz said Chemwiki has the potential to be a valuable resource but needs more people in order to be a success.

“It’s a different approach.” Walz said. “More people will get involved, and more people will contribute.”

EDMOND HARE can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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