Computer Graphics Students at the University of Puget Sound use Tableau to Answer Real-World Questions

Undergraduate computer science students who were unfamiliar with visualization techniques were asked to analyze real-world problems using Tableau.

Amazingly, my plan to have students teach themselves to use the software seemed to work.

Fun fact: Professor David Akers was introduced to Tableau as a graduate student at Stanford University.   His dissertation advisor was Pat Hanrahan, an academy award-winning Computer Science Professor, as well as the Chief Technology Officer of Tableau Software.  David Akers now teaches undergraduate Mathematics and Computer Science courses at the University of Puget Sound.

In Prof. Akers’ Information to Computer Graphics Course, students were tasked with answering the question:  What is the relationship between a country’s number of doctors (per capita) and the average life expectancy of the population?  Moreover, how does this relationship vary across different regions of the world?

The assignment also included building a website to showcase their findings.

Prof. Akers’ goal was to have students practice preparing and thinking about questions such as: when is it a good idea to use size to visually encode a variable; and how do you re-order rows or columns of data to create a more informative picture.  To begin, Prof. Akers taught the basics of relational data models and Bertin’s work on visual encodings.  Students were then given a prepared (cleaned) dataset with health indicators, and were pointed to the ‘Getting Started Tour’ under Tableau’s help menu.  “Amazingly, my plan to have students teach themselves to use the software seemed to work” said Prof. Akers.  Tableau also provided a guest lecture giving students a high-level overview of the features.

The exercise was a success.  Students designed beautiful, easy-to-understand visuals, complimented by text that helps navigate the reader through the full visual story-telling effect.   It was also fascinating to observe both the differences and similarities in which students chose to structure and tell their visual story.

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