Teaching Teenagers Data Visualization and Tableau

I've done lots of speaking engagements, teaching data visualization at the University of Cincinnati, workshops and presentations, but last night was a first for me. I sat down for 2 hours with a group of 8 teenagers who are homeschooled, 7 boys and 1 girl. I am friends with one of the families and they asked me to come present. The age range was 12-17 and we met at my friend's house. Everyone brought laptops with Tableau Public preloaded and we jumped right in to the world of data visualization.

I began with some slides about data visualization, what it is and what we are trying to do and then I quickly moved to visual perception. I talked about how our minds work and how we perceive information. I showed a number of 'illusions' and covered things like the Gestalt principle and the proximity principle. I use some of this same material at the university because I find people are much more engaged with fun 'illusions' vs. talking about how the visual cortex works and how information gets to the brain. This was a big hit. There was a lot of excitement slide after slide. Success!

I then moved to chart types, showing various chart types and exploring some good vs. bad examples. I even covered the topic of pie charts, which they quickly determined were bad and collectively started calling them "evil". This was not my doing, I just planted a seed, but who am I to stop them! We covered color briefly, walking them through the different ways of using color and we discussed colorblindness (Color Vision Deficiency). Finally, I covered geocoding, explaining what latitude and longitude are and the different formats and how we can use this to plot points on a map. All of this took about 30 minutes. I seemed to have their attention, so we dove into Tableau Public.

Here's a picture of the group diving into Tableau for the first time.

I set up a web page Tableau Teen and had it ready to go with some data sets. I started with Cincinnati Crime, because I thought that would be engaging to them and I was right. Having just covered geocoding they immediately wanted to make a map (they all liked the dark map layer in Tableau). So we plotted crime on a map and started looking around. The data set is one week of crime from the first week of this year. One immediate reaction was, "this is just one week of crime? wow." They played with color and various other fields for a minute or so. Then something really cool happened. They started asking questions of the data. Someone asked, "how can I see what's the highest crime?" I quickly responded, "that's a great question, so let's build something to answer that question." Three clicks later (literally) and we had a bar chart showing the count of offences and we could see that "theft" was the number one crime for the week.

Word of warning - be careful how much detail you give these kids. They are quick! I didn't use the "narrative" field, because it lists very detailed descriptions about the crime which I didn't think would be appropriate. However, one person asked, "What is voyeurism?", so I explained that was "watching someone through a window" and moved on. They found things on their own, for example, the "weapons" field and discovered that a shotgun was used once.

We continued on and another student asked, "what day of week is the highest?" and we created a histogram to show that Friday was the day with the most crime. They were catching on fast. This was just like being in a management meeting with an executive asking loads of questions. Engagement with the data! I often tell my students, "when people are asking questions about how to read your viz, then you probably didn't show the data clearly, but if they are asking questions from the data then you are on the right track."

We did a number of different charts exploring the data. I showed them the play control feature in Tableau and we watched crime by day and then how to add a filter so they could filter out types of crimes. A few of them also created a rainbow pie chart with loads of slices and then they laughed at each other's crazy work. At this point I decided to move on to another data set, so next up was Star Wars. Tableau built a great Web Data Connector for this, so we connected up to that and loaded in various data sets. They wanted to look at Starships first, then Planets and we ended with People.

Each data set brought something new. They started exploring on their own. One found the bubble chart on the Show Me tab and another clicked on tree map, so they immediately started playing with those. To demonstrate the bubble chart, I used the Planet data with diameter as the size and then we move surface water to color. They immediately wanted to make it blue instead of the default green, so I showed them how to change color.

We finished up with the People data set from Star Wars. I showed them how to build a scatter plot and in just a few minutes we had scatter plots showing height vs. mass with eye color on the color and gender on the shapes. There was lots of excitement as they found interesting things in the data, for example Jabba the Hutt listed as the only hermaphrodite. I finished by showing them actions, how to set up a Google search as a click action on their chart. We went back to Planets and used the bubble chart as a URL action which linked to a Google to search the name of the planet they selected. They all thought this was really cool.


1.) This was a success. It was fun and very different from what I normally do, as I don't have teenagers at home yet.

2.) These kids now have Tableau Public installed on their machines and access to data. I was walking around to check on their progress and found that one person was on an Iowa website looking for data. I asked what he was looking for and he responded, "I am trying to find data about how many times people mentioned Donald Trump's name in Iowa." Here he was moving past the Star Wars data and trying to get data for a hot political topic, all on his own.

3.) They move fast. I teach a ton of Tableau, two training workshops this past month and classes at UC right now. I've had feedback, "move a little slower at times". I can tell you that these teenagers move much quicker than adults in training and even faster than the UC students.

4.) They naturally explore. They were not afraid to just click stuff. They built a bar chart by clicking on the Show Me and then they immediately saw all of the other buttons and just start clicking away.

5.) They engaged with the data. This could be the result of the data sets I picked, crime data and Star Wars, something most teens might engage with. I think the key is "something they are interested in". That doesn't have to be Star Wars or crime data, as evidenced by the one student who was looking for political data in Iowa, but it does need to peak their interest.

Give it a try. I'm sure there are homeschoolers near you or maybe a high school class that would love to have an event like this. If you have any questions about the event feel free to email me at Jeff@DataPlusScience.com

Jeffrey A. Shaffer
Follow on Twitter @HighVizAbility