3 Great Programs for Exploring Data With Your Students

Adam Heckler is a twenty-something Cincinnati, Ohio local working in the education technology sector. Most of his time is spent at VARtek Services where he writes for the blog, manages social media, and advises K12 s

Exploring DataOne of the emerging trends in the business world right now is the collection and analysis of large amounts of data. There are a lot of names for this phenomenon, with “big data” being the most popular at the moment.

Whatever you want to call it, the fact of the matter is this: thanks to Google, Wikipedia, Lexis Nexis, and other large database providers like them, we have more information at our fingertips now than ever before. Future workers are going to have to be data-savvy to succeed in such an environment, and so it’s important to expose them to these ideas early.

Today I’ve rounded up a few handy tools, all of which are freely available, that you can use with your students. The focus here is on taking data, visualizing it, and using those visualizations to find out what the data has to say. Read on!


Google Spreadsheets

Many schools already use Google Apps as an email and collaboration suite, so they already have some built-in data tools in the form of Google Spreadsheets. Within the app, you can create several forms of charts from your data, including area charts, scatter plots, and even maps.

Here’s an example of a simple chart I created in about three minutes. I “performed” a fictitious experiment where I flung rubber bands from different heights and then recorded how far they flew. Once I had the “results”, I put them on a scatter plot.

Scatter Plot

As you can see, it’s nothing too complicated, even for students in lower grades. The problem is that once your students get a little older, they’ll need to move up to a program with a little more power.


Microsoft Excel

Ahh, Excel! The spreadsheet program that so many of us love to hate. No matter how you feel about it though, you can’t deny that Excel has had a tremendous impact on the way many people think about charts and graphs. This makes it a good middle-of-the-road program to use for really digging into the numbers.

In this example, I’ve downloaded some data on earthquakes in California over the past seven days and plotted it on a scatter plot. Since Excel is a little more powerful than Google Spreadsheets, I can also add a “trendline” that illuminates the overall results behind the data. In this case, my red trendline shows that, as earthquakes occur deeper inside the earth, they are slighter more likely to have a higher magnitude than shallower earthquakes.

California Earthquakes Chart

In order to fully utilize Excel’s power, though, students will have to learn some of the complex functions and formulas it uses, like SUMIF and VLOOKUP. These can be a little hard to understand, so it’s nice that our next tool can do most of that work for you.


Tableau Public

While Tableau primarily markets themselves as a business analytics solution, it can also be used to analyze just about any data you happen to have lying around.Their “Public Edition” is available for free, and while you can’t save your work locally with it, you can upload it to the web for free (which requires a free account) or just take a screenshot of your creation.

What’s nice about Tableau is that it’s drag-and-drop functionality makes it easy for, say, high school students to experiment with lots of different visualizations easily, but it’s also complex enough to hold their interest and challenge them. Check out this example:

Hits Colored by Home Runs

In this example, I’ve downloaded some historical baseball statistics from Baseball-Databank.org. My chart shows how many runs each team in the National League scored in 2010. Each bar is colored according to how many home runs that same team hit in the same year; the darker the bar, the more home runs.

As you can see at a glance, the teams that hit more home runs (darker bars) tended to score more runs on the whole than teams that didn’t hit a lot of home runs (lighter bars). While this is probably a trivial and obvious conclusion, it’s clear that Tableau can be used in your classroom to explore and visualize data on an entirely new level.


If you have any great tools or projects exploring data, be sure to share and let us know down in the comments!


Image courtesy of Flickr, Andrew Morrell Photography