Katherine Hepworth, University of Nevada, Reno


An interdisciplinary computation and visualization course at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) is introducing STEM pre-majors to communication design principles, in order to improve the quality of their digital scholarship generally, and of their visualizations specifically. The undergraduate course ‘Computational Skills for Big Data: Analysis, Statistics, and Visualization’ is an example of STEAM pedagogy, which incorporates art and/or design (abbreviated into the ‘A’ in STEAM) into science, technology, engineering, and math education. Since the Rhode Island School of Design first advocated for the STEAM model less than a decade ago, it has rapidly been incorporated into education, industry, research, and policy in many countries worldwide. However, STEAM-based pedagogy has not spread rapidly in Nevada, and prior to the creation of this corse in Fall 2017 course, STEM students at UNR had little to no exposure to communication design principles and best practices, despite being required to regularly produce a wide range of visualizations for diverse audiences. The expectation that STEM students produce visualizations without any training in the principles and best practices for doing so has resulted in poor communication of STEM knowledge in student work, disadvantaging both students and the broader university community. Improving the clarity and effectiveness of scientific communication by incorporating design education into STEM curriculum is an effective, and as yet underutilized means of asserting the value of design in the academy.

This interdisciplinary collaboration between physics, math, and design faculty, funded by the NASA NV Space Consortium Curriculum Development program, was instigated to meet multiple curricular needs. As well the need to improve STEM students’ ability to produce and share scientific communication, there was also a need to teach undergraduate STEM students how to find, work with, and run basic statistical analyses on open source big data sets, such as those produced by NASA. There is a growing demand for these big data skills in government, industry, and research. The benefits of introducing undergraduates to big data skills in combination with communication design principles and best practices for visualizations include clearer communication of scientific findings across campus, and improved career prospects for students. This combination of skills is valuable generally, but particularly for addressing scientific and governmental issues in air pollution, climate change, and weather extremes.

This presentation by the design instructor for this interdisciplinary course will include a summary of how it was created, including the process of seeking and gaining curriculum development funding from NASA, and an outline of the course itself, with particular emphasis on the visualization components. Students practice implementing communication design principles — color use, composition, hierarchy, and legibility — in their visualizations within R, a widely used statistical analysis tool, thereby incorporating good design into a familiar scientific workflow. Students also learn about best practices in communication design — ensuring ethical representation, utilizing graphic conventions, and maintaining visual consistency. The presentation will also explore student outcomes, include reflection on the interdisciplinary teaching process, and offer thoughts on incorporating design education into other STEM subjects, and across other institutions.

Katherine Hepworth is a graphic design practitioner-researcher currently working as Assistant Professor of Visual Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research interests center around how graphic design artifacts mediate power relationships, with a particular focus on the power implications of data visualization across disciplines. This research focus has lead to current projects on ethical data visualization in the digital humanities, efficacy and ethics in big data visualization, and pedagogical research on improving visualization educational strategies in the sciences. Hepworth also has a broad research interest in improving communication effectiveness in higher education. In her research, teaching, and professional practise Hepworth takes a human centered approach to graphic design, prioritizing understanding of people’s lived experience of, and interaction with graphic design artifacts.