Students in Matt Waite’s Journalism 491 – Data Visualization course used wide Legos to represent 1,000 yards and narrow bricks as 100 yards. Based on that, the visualization shows that Seattle ran the ball more than New England during the season, and New England racked up more passing yards.
As journalism schools across the country scramble to teach their students new skills to keep up with the rapidly changing industry — like data visualization — Matt Waite in Nebraska has an idea.
Start out your early teachings of that particular complex skill by using Legos.
Waite did just that this month when he asked his students in his data visualization course to use Legos to visualize Super Bowl data. He asked his students to use the toys to depict the difference between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. (Disclaimer: Waite is careful to say he wasn’t the first to use Legos as data visualization. But he would do it again, he said.)
“They immediately set about discussing what they would visualize and how they were going to make the bricks mean something,” Waite posted on his Tumblr account. “The discussions about scale and how to make a brick represent X touchdowns or Y yards were fantastic.”
Waite, a professor of practice at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said boiling it down to the basics of visualization ensured students focus on the data, not the intricacies of software tools.
“I think the mistake I made last time was not teaching enough mental tools. So when we got to using software, there were some gaps and students struggled,” Waite told AJR.
When working with data, sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. And it doesn’t get any simpler than Lego blocks.
“The Legos let them focus on representing the data with shape,” he said. “There wasn’t any, ‘Did I miss a semicolon? Did I use the wrong function? Did I press the wrong button?’”
But it’s too early to confirm if his Lego strategy was more effective, Waite said.