Over the last several years I have developed and taught a range of university-level courses on data visualization, information design, and interaction design. Most recently, I created a series of design and technology courses at Syracuse University’s iSchool, including two that have been regularized within the school’s graduate level Data Science program: IST712 Information Design and IST719 Data Visualization.
IST719 Data Visualization exposes students to principles of visual literacy and technical skills associated with the visualization of data (Python, R and Adobe Illustrator). The course includes modules on data preparation, visual design principles, telling stories with data, and representing relationships. From day one, students work hands-on with real-world data to generate effective visualizations, culminating in an open poster session at the end of the semester. Regularly scheduled “vis-a-thons” (a variation on the hackathon concept) highlight the practical and interactive nature of this course. During these collaborative and open sessions, an invited guest researcher presents a data-driven project to the class. Students explore a representative dataset and brainstorm visualization concepts that address specific questions related to the research topic. At the end of the session, visualization solutions are presented back to the guest researcher for critique and discussion.
IST712 Information Design focuses on design thinking in a broad sense. Exercises enable students to examine the process of designing with information in domains such as human computer interaction, information visualization, and information retrieval. The final project for this course requires students to identify an existing information system (analog or digital) and perform an intervention that alters that system in some way. Field reports document the intention and outcome of the intervention, capturing a sense of the initial fear and eventual empowerment that can accompany this task.
Students training to work in the information and computing fields need to be able to interpret complex and ambiguous situations, to interact with experts from other specialties and disciplines, and to constructively evaluate their own work and the work of others. Studio-based learning provides an environment for learning the skills of critique, practicing broad spectrum problem solving, and building a peer community around shared creative experiences. Many of my courses include studio-based components, in addition to seminar discussions and skills-driven learning modules. From 2008 to 2012, I led an initiative to foster studio-based teaching and learning practices at the iSchool at Syracuse University. The school now has dedicated space for these learning experiences and a steadily growing number of classroom-based collaborations with the Department of Design.
In addition to considering standardized student evaluations, I also evaluate my teaching effectiveness by regularly asking students to reflect on their learning process. In a recent post to our class blog, a student articulated the type of evolution I strive to set in motion:
"Taking this class was like getting a new pair of glasses. I see things I did not see before. I cannot look around without noticing the interplay of people and information…I learn something in every class I take, but not every class makes me think differently. This class challenges me every week to think in new and not always comfortable ways. I know that my learning in this area will continue long after class is over."This statement conveys the sense of involvement, ownership, and openness to new perspectives that I try to cultivate in my students.