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Exploring Data Visualization

Last fall, a semester-long Ford/Knight research project focused on data visualization, a field so new, textbooks are nonexistent. 

“It is a whole new discipline,” confirms Professor of Mathematics Mic Jackson, who with Associate Professor of Computer Science Charlie Peck, led the project. “There are people whose careers deal with just this problem so, we’re focusing on visualization issues.

“For example, if a student has a question about a certain set of data or a certain characteristic of a population, we ask: how can they use the data that's available to answer their question and come up with a visualization that tells the whole story, without distortion, where anyone looking at the visualization would see the point?”

Collaboration with Faculty

Collaboration is the key to research and scholarly activity at Earlham, where students develop close working relationships with faculty both in the classroom and in a research setting. In fact, the College’s mission statement envisions teaching and learning at Earlham as offering “extensive opportunities for students and faculty to interact with each other as persons, to learn from each other in a cooperative community, an important aspect of which is collaborative student/faculty research.”

A full 85 percent of Earlham’s professors have conducted research with students and this interaction extends across all disciplines at the College and often to off-campus sites throughout the world as well.

Through funding originally provided by the Ford and Knight foundations in the 1980s, the College has encouraged faculty members to work with small groups of students to explore new areas of research. Ford/Knight projects culminate in public presentations, so that the entire community has an opportunity to learn from the research.

Students involved in hands-on research gain multiple benefits long identified by educational researchers, such as increased motivation to learn, augmented independent thinking, greater reliance on evidence for decision-making, enhanced creativity and improved communication skills.

Student-faculty research not only strengthens critical thinking skills but also gives students the experience of working collaboratively on a research team of both faculty and students. At Earlham, the experience often results in the opportunity to share the project at a campus event, a publication in a scholarly journal, or a presentation at a professional conference.

Since 1986, the Ford/Knight Program has funded between 250 and 300 projects involving nearly 1,500 students. A dozen such research projects are underway in the current academic year.

In a Ford/Knight, the student-faculty collaboration even has an impact on when a class decides to meet.

Early Morning Class

“Because we come from so many different disciplines, it was difficult to find a time when everyone could meet,” recalls Jackson. In trying to find a gathering time for the Data Visualization Ford/Knight, “we tried weekends and evenings, but ultimately the students in the class came up with a two-hour block beginning at 6:30 a.m.

“It was their decision — even though some were drug into it by their classmates — but they’re quite enthusiastic. They’re wide-awake and participate actively in the morning session. Now,” he says laughing, “I can’t guarantee they won’t be sleeping in some class later in the day, but they’re wide awake for our session!”

The importance of this type of research, says senior Biochemistry major Emily Pavlovic, who admits to being a “morning person,” is that it affords her “the means to be able to present [my] work to other people and I think it’s really great because it applies to basically all disciplines of study.”

“The whole concept of getting someone to understand what you’re trying to get across is really important,” says Dee Ainembabazi, a junior double-majoring in mathematics and chemistry, “so taking this class gives me the background of what I should do while making presentations and getting people’s attraction to actually be involved and interact with what I’m trying to tell them.”

Ultimately, says senior Biochemistry major Ryan Lake, “it’s a way of learning something new in an area that is just still in its infancy. It’s not yet as well defined as some of the other areas of science, but it’s definitely something that’s needed, so it’s a good thing to have a background in. It’s a good thing to learn.”

Professor Mic Jackson agrees.

Professors Learning From Students

“[Charlie Peck and I] are not experts in this field,” he says. “Of course, that’s part of the idea of a Ford/Knight. We’re learning along with the students and trying to stay a little bit ahead of them. It’s truly a research type course because we don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of it in terms of the sort of information we’ll have or the kinds of studies the students will do themselves.”

“What the human enterprise often is,” continues Jackson, “is not having all of the answers but being flooded with questions and things we wish we understood better. And the student-faculty research gives the students a chance to participate with faculty.

“Charlie and I have had more experience with chasing questions and dealing with doubts and figuring out ways of getting information that we need. The students can see how we approach that and that can help them. And it’s a joint process. Charlie and I learn things from students. They run into some tools or ideas that we might not have thought of and, so, we’re learning as well.”

One of the most important aspects of collaborative research at Earlham, says Jackson, is the recognition by both students and faculty that professors are not handing students a finished product with “ideas that are already set in stone.”

“Together we acquire new knowledge. Together we gain better understanding. That is really what it is about,” he says. “But, even more than that, there’s just a real joy in doing it. Seeing students who are now empowered to not have to rely on someone else to come up with a good description of what the data might be saying.

“The next time someone puts up an infographic or some other data presentation that’s a little sketchy, these students are going to have a lot more savvy to understand how things have been done.”



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