My friend Paul

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 27, 2017

I have both a sad and joyous post today — one that I have been meaning to write for some time, but understandably struggled to do so.  On August 18th, I lost one of my dearest friends and most loving mentor, Paul Doherty.

I have thought of Paul every day since finding out  he was in hospice (just a week before he died).   I am not alone in my grief; Paul was an extraordinary person and many of us are stunned and picking up the pieces after the surprise of losing the most robust and exuberant person we know.  You will be hard pressed to find a teacher in the Bay Area who wasn’t personally mentored by Paul, and he has influenced people around the globe (teaching science to buddhist monks was just one of his extra-curriculars). I am so very lucky to have had Paul in my life, but it is still not OK that he is gone.  Note:  I will be returning to the Bay Area for his memorial on Oct 6th and would love to get together with those there who knew him that day — drop me a note.

After my PhD at UC Santa Cruz, I was sifting around for what to do next, and saw a job ad for a postdoctoral position at the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception in San Francisco.  I knew I needed that job.  And when I met Paul, I knew I needed to work with this person.  I think he felt the same way, and they enthusiastically hired me into a life changing experience.

At the Exploratorium I worked with Paul (and many other wonderful people) in the Teacher Institute, offering in-service teacher workshops.  I wasn’t very good at it.  🙂  But while teacher prep wasn’t my forte, what I did gain was a deep and lasting appreciation of the value of learning science through doing, the excitement of understanding physics phenomena over principles, the power of inspiration and beauty in learning, and how to communicate to the public.  I took that newfound calling on to a career in science education reform and research.  But I still miss the creativity and enthusiasm of my days at the Teacher Institute. To the left is a photo of me “coring” a cake as part of a public webcast on polar science.  We had so much fun in those webinars.

Paul cared deeply about mentoring, and I can still remember noticing how carefully he chose his feedback to help me hone my skills — while still supporting me and helping me feel good about myself. He taught me so much about physics — real physics you never learn in all those graduate studies. He helped me develop lessons for teachers and write for the public, and hone my presentation skills, all in a supportive and intelligent way.   In fact, he wrote about the importance of mentoring for the AAPT’s 75th anniversary.  Paul is an amazing teacher — both of teachers, and of those like me, who want to work in education.  Paul really loves people.  He loved me, and it is amazing to have a mentor who loves you.  He became a platform from which I could try new things, and know someone would be there to catch me when I fell.

Paul literally caught me when I fell, too.  Paul  taught me how to climb, taking me out with his “old guy climber” friends, and patiently showing me what to notice in my body and the feeling on the rock, and helping me apply my physics knowledge to this new sport.  Paul was a world-class climber, taking frequent adventures around the world, and I am lucky to have been on many wonderful climbs with him.  Climbing was a sport that I enjoyed for many years.  To the right is me, with Paul’s legs (which anybody who knows him should recognize.  Why are his legs so recognizable?)

And lastly, when I decided to get married, I knew there was no better person to officiate my wedding than Paul.  In Colorado, anybody can officiate, and Paul had been my friend, mentor, teacher, and lifted me up in so many ways.  He graciously accepted (bless him), and found some old west clothes at my request (bless him) to fit with our theme, and read an excerpt from the Feynman Lectures — the universe in a glass of wine, which I quote for you here.

A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!

Thank you for everything, Paul — the world is better for having had you in it.

If you want to read more about Paul, his extensive website has his many amazing inquiry lessons for teachers, articles he’s written, and notes about his life.  Here is a nice obituary from SF Gate and the Exploratorium



Condensing the visual display of comparisons: Data Dashboards

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 13, 2017

I’ve been learning more about effective data visualization lately, and recently was in a wonderful webinar on Data Dashboards (with Ann Emery — whose blog has great posts about data viz, such as using color, and telling stories with data).  It was a wonderfully information-packed session, and I’d recommend it to anybody!  I have a lot to learn in this area, but find it fascinating — particularly since I learn a lot about human psychology and information processing along the way.

What is a Data Dashboard?

It’s a single visual aggregation of all the important information for a project or objective, in one compact display.  For example, you might want to compare all the responses on a series of questions in one display, or show how this year compared to last year on a series of measures, or show progress towards project goals, or show a series of line graphs.  Or, more likely, you may want to do a combination of these things.  First, consider your audience — what information do they need to compare?  What will tell the story that they need to think about?  Dashboards are just one communication tool among many; most useful for pulling together comparisons — across sites, individuals, or time.

In this post I’ll briefly go over some of the types of dashboards I learned about, and how to make some of them.  You really have to just go through it step by step to become familiar with it.  Once you start playing with these, you can get some great ideas.

Types of Dashboards

For more ideas about different types of data displays, see Ann Emery’s “Choose the right chart” posts.  Some other types of visuals she showed us were tracking progress towards goals, and combinations of the chart types below.  All of these are basically add-ons to an existing (nicely organized) table of data values.

1. Comparisons with mini bar charts

This could be used for giving a snapshot of how different sites are performing on a set of measures, for example.  Using Conditional Formatting in Excel, (the “data bars” option), and then being clever with formatting to make it look nice, you can make some nice little bar charts to accompany your data table.  In some cases, you may find it is easier to visually parse this information by using a “heat map” — where the percentage is shown by shading the bar to different degrees.

2.  Comparisons with deviation bar charts

If you want to compare two points in time, or compare one instance to the previous average, deviation bar charts can be really useful.  You could compare Year 1 to Year 4, or Starting to Ending.  This is also done using Conditional Formatting (“data bars”):  The “deviations” are shown as bars that show increases/decreases (e.g., comparing Year 1 to 4)

3. Two or more points in time:  Mini lines

This is a pretty common style, according to Ann, and is pretty easy, allowing you to quickly visualize trends over time.  This is done in Excel using “Sparklines.”

So, how do you do all this?

In the webinar, Ann walked us through doing this in Excel, which was very helpful.  Here are the basic steps.

  1. Create your data table in Excel, and declutter it.  For example, put all your variables in columns (e.g., “Question 1, Question 2) and your groups to compare (e.g., “Workshop 1, Workshop 2”) in the rows.  Give them short names, and organize it into any categories (e.g., “Attitude questions”, “Content questions”) that you want to compare.  Separate those categories with white space.  This isn’t just the data; this will become your dashboard, so make it look nice.
  2. Add your visual.  Detail on creating the visuals above is outlined.  Once you make one, you can copy to your additional rows of data.
    1. To create sparklines (to track data over time):  Highlight the row of data indicating trends over time.  Choose “sparklines.”  You may want to choose to use “Markers” First/last, to make the first and last data point particularly visible.
    2. To make mini bar-charts (to compare groups on similar questions):  Add a blank column between your columns of data.  Using the “=” function in this new column, create a “twin” column of data (i.e., this “twin” column is a copy of your original data).  Use Conditional Formatting on this twin column, choosing “data bars.”  To make it look nice, as in the example, edit the “rule” for that data bar to show the bar only, and choose minimum 0 and maximum 1 (thus the bar will stretch to the max).  To create a grey shading in the background (to make it clearer how far you are from 100%), use the Shading command.  Then outline each bar in white to make it stand out, by using internal and external borders (“more borders”) at the thickest setting.  You can separate the bars from one another by inserting a small blank column.
    3. To make heat maps (to compare groups on similar questions using saturation to indicate higher levels instead of the length of the bar).  As above, but choose Conditional Formatting, and color scales.  It’s best to outline them in white using borders, and try the green/white palette to start.
    4. To make deviation bar charts.  As above (Data Bars), but go into Edit Rule and choose Maximum (Number: 1) and Minimum (Number: 1), filling positive values in blue and negative in red.
  3. Write text to orient your user.  At the top of the dashboard, describe the dashboard. Define any variables. Put the year to the top right.
  4. Use clear text hierarchy.  You want the title to be large, and subtitles to be bold.  What do you want your user to look at first?  What is the most important?  Guide their eye.
  5. Brand the dashboard.  Use fonts and colors which reflect the client.  You can use colors to highlight categories nicely (e.g. the “Listserv” category may use red font, and then red sparklines). Use to avoid colors that are difficult to distinguish for color blind users (such as red and green:  Green and orange or blue and red are fine).  Add a logo.
  6. Print it.  Select the portion of the dashboard you want to print (you may have some notes or other elements off-screen), and choose Print to PDF.  You may wish to play with the size of rows and columns to make it fit nicely to a page. You may wish to change it to Landscape mode too.   Note that if you select all columns and then adjust the size of them, it will adjust the width of all columns in tandem: this is a good trick for ensuring equally sized columns (or rows).

I ended up using these to create a combination dashboard, which used bar charts to show the average question rating, sparklines to show the rating over time, and deviation bar charts to show how this year’s workshop compared to the historical average.  I really like it!  Below is the dashboard that I created for one of my clients.






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Want to consult? Here are some resources for education consultants.

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