Students create data visualizations for community partners | Classroom Spotlight

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This past spring, Mercer University students learned skills for designing and sharing visual data and put that knowledge into practice through a project with local clients. 

Two classes, technical communication 376 and 676, were combined to create a new hybrid visual communication class. Undergraduate students attended in person on the Macon campus, while graduate students attended virtually and served in supervisory roles for the final projects. The course will be offered again in spring 2022.

“It creates a really unique dynamic where it brings our classes and those two student populations together,” said Dr. Philip Gallagher, assistant professor in the Department of Technical Communication and instructor/designer of the course. “It allows grad students, most of whom are working professionals, to bring that knowledge into the classroom and work on teams with undergrads.”

The class focused on how to create purposeful text, images and data visuals through various computer programs. Students learned how to use Microsoft tools, Tableau and many Adobe Creative Cloud design tools, including Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator.

Dr. Philip Gallagher

Students discovered how to analyze and describe visual communication and design work, so they can share their thoughts with collaborators and create their own meaningful visualizations. Together, the skills and programs learned in the course provide students with a “functional knowledge of the industry.”

“My goals are to help them develop a language for good visual communication,” Dr. Gallagher said.

A lot of local organizations and offices don’t have access to software or individuals who are trained in creating data visualizations, so Dr. Gallagher incorporated a community-focused project into his class. 

For their capstone project, students were divided into six groups, each with a graduate student who served as the team manager and two or three undergraduates. Each team found a community partner that was working on a research project, report or publication; analyzed their situation and data set; and produced clear statistical visualizations, including pie charts, line and bar graphs, scatter plots and density maps. 

Students worked with the Mercer Engineering Research Center, Decatur County School System, Elavon, Terma North America, Macon Bacon baseball team and School of Engineering Dean Dr. Laura Lackey.

“They learned how to connect with the community and find partners. They definitely got hands-on experience analyzing a client’s needs and expectations, working with complex data sets, and using the information to create visual representations,” Dr. Gallagher said. 

Sonia Verma, a graduate student who will complete her master’s degree in technical communication management in December, led her team in creating a data visualization report for Evalan, where she is a senior technical writer. 

“That was a good experience for me because I have mostly been an individual contributor in my professional life,” she said. “I have not officially led a team. Even though this was a small project, it gave me the opportunity to lead a team, to understand how a team can function effectively, and to know more about the dynamics.”

Verma said she is glad to know the basics of the Adobe Creative Suite tools in case she needs to use them in the future, as well as language that can help her effectively communicate with colleagues on projects.

Senior Victoria Whitehead, a technical communication major, and her group worked on the School of Engineering project. They created a pie chart and bar graph based on data from a student survey. 

She said she appreciated the project experience and the creativity it allowed. The software skills she learned have already come in handy, since she used them in an instructional design internship over the summer. 

“Every client is different and has their own expectations. I learned there’s a wide range of clients, and the most important thing is to give the client what they want and stay in communication,” she said. “This class brought everything together, as far as visual translation. You have information, and how can you present it in a way that makes sense to other people? My job is to make it more palatable so people can get the gist of the information.”

 

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Andrea is a digital content specialist at Mercer. She creates and maintains written and multimedia content for primary University web pages. She ensures a consistent, University “voice” throughout various forms of online communications platforms. She also plans and executes campaigns for the primary official Mercer University social media accounts.