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Using Data Visualizations to Highlight Impact of Energy Sources

February 6, 2024

Offered for the first time last semester, 360° Energy Afterlives examined the afterlives of coal, oil, and nuclear energy through the lenses of the arts, political science, and earth science. 

The three courses that made up the cluster were Geology 107: Geology of Coal, Oil, and Nuclear Energy, taught by Selby Hearth; Political Science 304: Community and the Politics of Place, taught by Joel Schlosser, and Russian 232: Coal, Oil, Nuclear: Narrative Afterlives, taught by José Vergara.

As part of the 360°, groups of students created data visualizations showcasing some of what they’d learned. The visualizations are now on display at various locations on campus, and an “Exhibition Crawl” is being held on Friday, Feb. 9, from 2:30-4:30 p.m. The crawl is self-guided and can be started at any of the seven exhibits.

Students work on tapestries representing sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants
Students work on tapestries representing sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Knitting Installation
Installation in Dalton Hall

“When students turn data into art, they work with it in a totally different way. The data becomes a creative material, instead of just a bunch of numbers,” says Hearth. “We asked them to design data art to tell our community stories about how oil, coal, and nuclear energy have shaped our world. They could have done this with a bunch of graphs – but data art pulls the viewer in and (hopefully!) makes the story more accessible and powerful.”

Miya Matsumune ’26, who is majoring in both geology and history, was among the students in the 360°.

“Data visualizations and physicalizations were very new to me,” says Matsumune. “I gained a deep love for representing data in creative and engaging ways. Writing a piano song based on sea surface temperature warming data was one of the coolest projects I have completed so far at Bryn Mawr. Combining my passion for music with data made me understand it in a different way.”

For his Russian class, Vergara asked the students to collect and visualize data concerning energy’s afterlives in art.

“If coal, oil, and nuclear energy are indeed inextricably linked to our everyday lives, then they must also appear in most cultural artifacts, even those that aren’t explicitly about energy,” says Vergara. “So, they had to read a text and explore how the ideologies or effects of energy sources unexpectedly filter into these works. That task, along with creating a visualization, required the students to think through the material differently and allowed them to deliver their newfound knowledge to audiences in exciting, accessible ways.”

In addition to classroom and exhibition work, the 360° featured a trip to Southeast Alaska, where participants saw the effects of climate change at the Mendenhall Glacier, examined extractive colonial histories of the Russian fur trade, and engaged in discussions with Alaskan artists and cultural leaders about the impact of extractive industries on Alaska Native communities. Students and faculty also took a single-day trip to visit the mining town Coaldale, Pa.

360° group at the Mendenhall Glacier

“Energy Afterlives was my first 360°, and it was an incredible experience! I would definitely recommend the program to other students,” says Matsumune. “My favorite part was traveling to Alaska with the cohort over Fall Break. My professors arranged a wonderful schedule for us with a variety of meaningful, eye-opening, and fun activities, from speaking with the amazing Tlingit author Ernestine Hayes to sampling microplastics at the Mendenhall Glacier.”

Interdisciplinary and interactive, 360° builds on Bryn Mawr's strong institutional history of learning experiences beyond the traditional classroom, placed within a rigorous academic framework. 360° participants hone their arguments and insights through writing and research, develop strategies for teamwork that push the limits of their talents and creativity, and work with professors and scholars to promote big-picture thinking. Travel associated with the 360° program is funded by Bryn Mawr College.