The Art of Data Visualization: Innovative curriculum offered by the Applied Mathematics and Statistics Department

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Art of Data Visualization, a new course offered by the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, gives students first-hand experience of the power of data and the wonder of extracting information from a bunch of numbers.

Targeted towards students with limited quantitative backgrounds – many who claim to have an aversion to math – this undergraduate course is about designing tools to visually communicate quantitative information.  

Because of UC Santa Cruz’ unique general education requirement for statistical reasoning, students have to find a way to face whatever fears, aversions or other objections they have to statistics.

The Art of Data Visualization can be an excellent choice for these students. It combines concepts in art, data, graphic design and even math to teach students how to tell stories using computer-generated scientific graphs and other graphics. Boxplots, dotplots, scatter plots, bubble plots, maps, word clouds/trees and network graphs are all fair game. Students also learn how to assemble multiple graphs together with a coherent narrative to tell a story. One student indicated that the course opened up new career paths for him. “There are job opportunities for art students that relate to our art skills but aren’t purely art.”

Another student noted “I enjoyed this class way more than I would have enjoyed traditional stats …  I'm more of a visual learner and I'm bad at math..." while another said, “I loved the matching of math and art in one course.”

Final projects are presented at a two-hour public exhibition in the Engineering Courtyard and are evaluated by a panel of faculty from multiple departments. This year’s projects included:

  • 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak
  • Crime in the United States
  • Engagement of Latino Students in High School Homelessness in Santa Cruz
  • Food versus Health
  • Hispanic Serving Institutions? Exploring the Presence of Latin@ Students in the UC
  • How do Countries Compare? The World Factbook
  • I Want to Believe: UFO Sightings and Encounters
  • Inequality in Film
  • Pirates: The Rise and Fall of Violence at Sea
  • Racial Demographics in US Prisons
  • Shoes Through Time and Space
  • The Ebola Outbreak
  • The Real Cost of Education
  • The Rise of Taobao


About the BSOE Applied Mathematics and Statistics Department statistical reasoning curriculum

The Art of Data Visualization is just one example of the innovative curriculum coming out of the Applied Mathematics and Statistics (AMS) Department in the Baskin School of Engineering.

Another example, Gambling and Gaming (AMS-080A), uses casino and strategy games (such as roulette, poker, tic-tac-toe and roshambo) to introduce students to basic notions of probability, statistics and decision theory. 

As the AMS Department expands, faculty plan to develop other statistical reasoning courses that together will comprise an “uncertainty curriculum” unique to UC Santa Cruz. Sports Analytics will emphasize sabermetrics (the statistical analysis of baseball data) and its impact on the sport of baseball. The Data that Changed the World will use a collection of famous case studies to illustrate both good and bad practices in the analysis and interpretation of data.

Designed to help undergraduate students learn how to reason under uncertainty, these courses satisfy UCSC’s statistical reasoning requirement. And they attempt to transform the subject of statistics, which is sometimes considered “dull and pointless,” into one that that is lively, practical and useful.