Remix: How Breakfast Can Help Your Students Understand Data

    by Jodie Gil
    June 28, 2016
    Learning to find, clean, analyze and visualize data is critical in journalism education today. (Public domain image from DARPA)

    Remix is a segment of education content on MediaShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers will detail their ideas and work and, where possible, provide links and materials, so other educators can adapt them in their own programs. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact education curator Katy Culver.

    Turn eggs and coffee into teaching gold with this starter data assignment.

    Before having students dive into data journalism, first you have to help them understand how to structure information. That was one key takeaway from Poynter’s Hands-On Digital Tools and Data workshop held from June 12-14 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.


    The Poynter workshop was designed to help journalism instructors bring more data assignments into journalism classes.

    After two days of data practice, five journalism professors at the workshop created “What’s for breakfast,” an introductory assignment designed to get students thinking about how to structure data into spreadsheets. The professors were Kelli Bloomquist of Iowa Central Community College, David Copeland of Elon University, Michel Haigh of Penn State University, Kanina Holmes of Carleton University and myself. See our assignment details here.

    I’ve taught short sections on data journalism in two courses over the last four years. I always started the lessons using an existing database, and getting right into sorts and filters. I was excited to dive into the information, but found I was overwhelming the students along the way.


    After two days at Poynter’s training, I realized a slower approach might be more helpful in getting the students comfortable working with data. A better foundation will hopefully lead to more students using data in their reporting.

    We designed this assignment to avoid information overload, and to start simple with a topic students can easily relate to: food.

    This assignment takes students through the steps to build a database, clean up data and perform basic sorts.

    Prep workScreen shot Google Sheets share

    Before class, the instructor should create a Google Sheet and change the share options to allow anyone with a link to edit the document. To do that, click on the blue “Share” button on the top right-hand side of the Google sheet.

    You can invite your students by e-mail address or simply allow anyone with a link to edit.

    Build out column A with a list of all the students in the class. They’ll access the spreadsheet after a short discussion and input their own data in their row.

    In Class

    First, discuss with your students how you can break up an action like eating breakfast into data points that will help you evaluate trends and find stories.

    Ask students to come up with data points around eating a meal. Some possible items include the time of day the meal was consumed, the type of food, the type of drink or the amount paid for that meal.

    GilGoogleColumnStart building column headers around the data points your students brainstorm. This is a good time to describe the difference between columns and rows, and what a cell is.

    A column, shown here, is the information running down under the letters. In this screenshot, all the different breakfast times are highlighted.

    A row is the horizontal information, labeled with numbers. Each person’s response will populate a row.

    A cell is the individual box with information. Best data practices structure individual cells such that they hold just one piece of information. So day and time would each get their own cell, rather than combining them in one.

    Fill in your own information, and then let students fill in theirs. Everyone can sign into the same sheet and see all the answers as they’re filled in live. This will reinforce the idea of  how important it is to stay in the correct row.


    screen shot google cellNow that students are thinking about information structure, you can demonstrate how formatting data can help find trends.

    As a class, look at the fully populated spreadsheet to start looking for patterns. Google Sheets lets you sort by one of the data points.

    To do so, select the top left cell (above the 1 and to the left of the A) to highlight the full sheet.

    google screenshotThen select Data, then Sort Range. On the resulting pop-up box, make sure you check off the box indicating that the data has headers, so the header information doesn’t get sorted with your data.

    Then select whichever column you’d like to sort by and select whether you want the information to be ascending (lowest to highest) or descending.

    This should bring up interesting points about inconsistent data. For example, if students formatted dollar amounts in different ways, the information won’t sort properly, as shown in the image at right.

    Data sort screenshotIt will also demonstrate the difficulty of sorting data that is too complicated, such as the examples of breakfasts that include more than one item.

    Discussion around those problems will help students understand the importance of gathering data in a consistent way and cleaning it up when errors are introduced.

    Digging In

    Once you’ve explained sorting, ask each student to make a copy of the spreadsheet to do their own work. If they start sorting in the group spreadsheet, it will make changes to the original document. You can create a copy of a spreadsheet in Google Sheets by selecting File > Make a Copy. It will save in the students’ own Google Drive accounts.

    Once students have a new version, ask them to sort by three different column names to practice. For example, you might ask who paid the most for breakfast, who ate the earliest, and which students had a caffeinated beverage with breakfast.

    These steps of collecting and analyzing accessible and simple data will help students lay the groundwork for dealing with larger datasets.

    Jodie Mozdzer Gil is an assistant professor of Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. Prior to teaching, she worked as a reporter in Connecticut for the Hartford Courant, the Valley Independent Sentinel and the Republican-American of Waterbury. She serves as the treasurer and contest coordinator for the Connecticut Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. You can connect with her on Twitter @mozactly.

    Tagged: data food google google sheets remix

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