Data visualization class designed to increase science communication

March 6, 2018

The Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership (ACEL) has implemented a new course, Data Visualization and Scientific Storytelling in Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (DataVis). This course will benefit anyone interested in building design skills for a real-world environment related to science communication.

Dr. Annie Specht, an assistant professor in agricultural communication, designed the course following conversations with agricultural communication students seeking an additional design course. She also received feedback from faculty members from other departments sharing their students struggle with design, relating to their science and data, simply because they are not trained in those skills.

“We thought if there’s an opportunity for us in the department to offer our students another design course and offer something as a service course for those graduate or undergraduate students who are presenting research or sharing research in some way, then that would be a really great opportunity to develop this new class,” said Specht.

There were 15 students who enrolled in the pilot course taught during autumn semester, with a split between undergraduates and graduate students. Thirteen students were from the Columbus campus and two students from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster. Wooster students used ZOOM, a distance platform, to virtually participate in classes.

The majority of the course is concentrated on the concepts of taking scientific information and translating into graphic form. The course focuses on teaching design principles and working with infographics for web and print projects, such as research posters and fact sheets.

“We have so many classes that teach us how to write and present findings in a scientific manner, but not many that help to teach us how to tailor to different audiences,” said Tiffany Atkinson, a National Science Foundation fellow in the School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Since most people are visual learners, I think it's really important to have classes like this that link design and science communication.”

“Dr. Specht pitched this course to me weeks after I started as chair at Ohio State. Her passion for the topics in the course is clear. Further, the topics are timely,” said Dr. Tracy Kitchel, professor and chair for the Department. “In our information-heavy society, people need scientists and professionals who have the ability to break down complex scientific work in ways that is digestible to a wide audience yet not broken down so much that it lessens the value of the science. That is not an easy task, but Dr. Specht is up for the challenge in training students to be effective translators of science.”

DataVis is seen as a service course offered to students interested in science careers across the campus wanting to build targeted design skills in their career. In addition, the course will help agricultural communication students who are interested in design and science communication, giving them another opportunity to practice design skills in different context.

“I would really love to see students involved in undergraduate and graduate research taking the class,” said Specht, “I think it would be hugely beneficial for undergraduate and graduate researchers who don't know how to put together data visualization and posters.”

“The skills I have gained from this class have made me a better advocate for my research,” said Kate Donlon, a graduate research assistant in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, who was enrolled in the course. “Learning the theory behind effective design and gaining knowledge in this area will hopefully set my science communications graphics apart from others in my field.”

Specht is also hoping for employees of Ohio State University Extension to take this course to continue their education while auditing the class and learning graphic design skills to better how they translate scientific for consumers.