University of Bielefeld engages students with demographic data lab


Founded in 1969, the University of Bielefeld today boasts 13 faculties with a total of roughly 24,000 students. Prof. Dr. Ralf E. Ulrich is heading up the Institute for Population and Health Research at the School of Public Health.

His research focuses on human population sizes, structures (age, sex, nationality), and their variances over time.

Prof. Ulrich uses Tableau in his teaching projects for a variety of visualizations of demographic data. He also teaches Tableau in a number of courses—allowing students to dig deeper into demographic data. Prof. Ulrich describes how — using Tableau — students discovered demographic details that were previously unknown in the community.


Tableau: Tell us a little about yourself.
Prof. Ralf Ulrich, Professor of Social Studies: I’m Ralf Ulrich. I teach demography and health at Bielefeld University and in this job I have to deal with huge data sets and my students, some of them at least, in their future careers, too. So that’s how I came to Tableau.

Tableau: How did you first learn about Tableau?
Prof. Ulrich: It must have been around 2011 that I found a link on an Excel forum to Tableau and I went to the Tableau website and downloaded a trial and I noticed also an interesting video from an American automobile club. And learned for myself that there is a similarity between this automobile club and the health industry. Because in both huge amounts of data are produced by processes and this data is only partly used for value. And Tableau could have been a tool to make more of that.

Tableau: Why did you choose to use Tableau in your courses?
Prof. Ulrich: I tried Tableau myself and found it quite easy to learn and I learned also that I can analyze huge data sets in a short time. I always have some students who are interested to go beyond Excel and beyond SPSS. And so I decided to offer a course on Tableau.

Students get acquainted with Business Intelligence, get an advantage compared to other students and might be able to apply this knowledge in their later careers.

Tableau: How do you use Tableau in your courses?
Prof. Ulrich: Actually, I use Tableau in three different ways.

One way is a summer course centered around and focused on Tableau, where a group of 15 to 20 students learn to create dashboards, to analyze data sets. And at the end of each course they produce a presentation that they upload to Tableau Public.

Secondly, each winter, I have a lecture on demography and health and I use Tableau to produce about 10 files, which I uploaded to Tableau Public. My students can interact with demographic data as data customers. With this demographic data lab, that’s how we call it, they get much deeper into the demographic data and they can answer the questions I post in the lecture, but also the questions they have themselves to the data.
There is a third area where we use Tableau and that’s in so called project seminars.

One project was about delirium patients in the Bielefeld hospital. And the students – with the help of Tableau and without any previous knowledge of Tableau – were able to identify the specific characteristics, the demography, of delirium patients. They found out that they are much less geographically dispersed as other patients in the Bielefeld hospital. And the management of the hospital invited us to present these results they had not known, before.

Tableau: What are the benefits of using Tableau in your courses?
Prof. Ulrich: The biggest benefit of using Tableau in courses is that students get acquainted with Business Intelligence. So by learning this already at the Bielefeld University our students get an advantage compared to other students and they might be able to apply this knowledge in their later careers.

Besides administrative hurdles, the biggest hurdle was to get the students beyond the very first euphoria with Tableau. In the very beginning – it’s like game and toy, and lots of colors and everything – so the challenge is to bring them beyond that point and motivate them to learn much more difficult things like the art of filtering or other things.

Tableau: What type of feedback do you receive from your students?
Prof. Ulrich: Students like these courses very much. And I get a lot of questions if it will be offered next year again.

The students–with the help of Tableau and without any previous knowledge of Tableau–were able to identify the specific characteristics, the demography, of delirium patients.

Tableau: Did you notice any major difference in your course since you started teaching Tableau?
Prof. Ulrich: I got deeper into intricacies of Tableau. And this enabled me to adjust methodology how I teach it and also, after a few years of teaching it, I got experience what are the difficulties for the students. So it might take two or three years of teaching Tableau to reach a certain point where you actually understand better the learning process.

Tableau: Would you recommend Tableau to other teachers?
Prof. Ulrich: Tableau pulls the interest of students from the beginning. They experience fast progress, which is very stimulating for them and for the teacher. In the beginning, students try to apply the approach they learned for Excel to Tableau. That does not work well and can lead to some frustrations. One important thing to learn to do things the Tableau way. That is an important step. Also some of my students misunderstood Tableau in the beginning as a visualization program. Now I take more time in the beginning to explain the type of animal Tableau is.

Tableau: How do you leverage the Tableau academics programs (Tableau for Teaching and Tableau for Students)?
Prof. Ulrich: The colleagues from Tableau Academic Program staff supplied us with license keys for our computer pool and with license keys for each individual student, so that the students could continue learning Tableau at home.

I also appreciate that students after completing my course can continue to use student licenses. And in some cases I could observe students using Tableau for their Master thesis.

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