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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2021 Features

Beyond Pie Charts:
Partnership with Slalom Helps Students Hone Data Visualization Skills

By Becky Kramer • Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wolcott

For a class project, Elizabeth Wolcott used Tableau to chart regional sales for a furniture and office supply company.

Making your case in the boardroom often means coming prepared with charts and graphs.

The ability to turn complex data sets into easily understood graphics is called “data visualization,” and it’s part of The Next Carson Coug curriculum, the college’s revamp of its undergraduate program.

“Companies deal with reams and reams of data,” says Debbie Compeau, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and research at the Carson College of Business. “As future employees, students need to be able to communicate data in meaningful ways. And that includes knowing whether to use a bar graph, a line graph, or a heat map to make your point.”

To bring industry standards into the classroom, the college teamed up with Slalom. Employees at the Seattle-headquartered consulting company helped design the data visualization class and provided expertise and guest lectures on Tableau, one of the world’s most popular data visualization software tools.

The class debuted in fall 2020. It’s part of a three course module that includes Excel and Decision-Making with Data.

“I absolutely loved it,” says Elizabeth Wolcott, a junior majoring in hospitality business management. “It’s amazing how many different types of charts and graphs are out there, how in depth you can go with data, and how you can use data to tell a story.”

For a class project, Wolcott and another student used Tableau to chart regional sales for a furniture and office supply company. Their work revealed that while the company’s sales and revenue were increasing, overall profits were down. After making their case in charts and graphs, the students recommended focusing sales efforts on the company’s most profitable regions.

“We wanted students not only to learn data visualization skills, but to think strategically like a business owner or manager would,” says Beverly Amer, teaching associate professor and the course instructor. The partnership with Slalom has been vital to the class’s success, she says.

A Pretty Easy “Yes”

When Chip Hunter, the college’s dean, approached Slalom’s chief of staff for the Seattle market about enlisting the company’s help with the class, she was enthusiastic.

“Being an alumna, ‘yes’ is usually a pretty easy answer for me,” Jaimie Jacobsen (’03 Mgmt. Info. Sys.) says with a chuckle. As a former member of the National Board of Advisors, she also worked on The Next Carson Coug.

“I really wanted to see The Next Carson Coug through and help it become a success,” Jacobsen says. “This was a great way to contribute to the college from a time and talent perspective.”

Jacobsen identified two Tableau-certified consultants at Slalom who worked with Amer and the two other faculty instructors. Besides helping write the business case study used in the class, the consultants kept virtual office hours to answer questions about the software. The students called them “the Tableau masters.”

“The consultants helped fine-tune the relevance of material,” Compeau says. “Students got a chance to hear from professionals about how they use data visualization in the workplace.”

Slalom also benefits from the partnership by getting acquainted with students and Carson College professors, Jacobsen says.

“The competition for employee talent is real,” she says. “We’re getting our name and brand out there early and identifying some of the high performing students we might want to join our team.”

A Professional Advantage

Wolcott put her class project on her LinkedIn profile, where she’s confident it will catch the eye of prospective employers. “We created two formulas to show some of the data,” she says. “I’m really proud of how the final project turned out.”

Her dad, Jason Wolcott (’01 Microbiol.), uses software similar to Tableau as part of his work as the commercial director for a global, wholesale blueberry nursery based in Oregon. So she could see the real-world applications.

“It was interesting to compare what my dad was doing at his job, what I was doing in class, and how similar they were,” Wolcott says. “Knowing these skills will give me an advantage in the professional world—they’re definitely résumé builders.”

Most students take the class in their sophomore year. “I really love that the Carson College implemented this so early on,” says Roos Helgesen-Thompson, who is majoring in finance and international business. “Data is so important these days. Even if you’re not going to create it, you’re going to need to be able to read and understand it.”

Besides being able to illustrate data, Helgesen-Thompson says the class also made him a more discerning consumer of data portrayed in charts and graphs.

“It gives you a broader view and allows you to look at data more critically,” he says. “You can say, ‘Well yeah, I get that point, but what does the data say about this?’”

Elizabeth Wolcott

Knowing these skills will give me an advantage in the professional world—they’re definitely résumé builders.