Grand Challenges Course: Great (early) progress on the project work.

While I’ve been talking about the project work in my new “Grand Challenge”-based course a lot, I’ve also identified a degree of, for want of a better word, fearfulness on the part of the students. Given that their first project is a large poster with a visualisation of some interesting data, which they have to locate and analyse, and that these are mostly Computer Science students with no visualisation experience, they are understandably slightly concerned. We’ve been having great discussions and lots of contributions but next week is their first pitch and, suddenly, they need a project theme.

I’ve provided a fair bit of guidance for the project pitch, and I reproduce it here in case you’re interested:

Project 1: First Deliverable, the Pitch

Due 2pm, Wednesday, the 8th of August Because group feedback is such an important part of this project, you must have your pitch ready to present for this session and have the best pitch ready that you can. Allocate at least 10 hours to give you enough time to do a good job.

What is the pitch?

A pitch is generally an introduction of a product or service to an audience who knows nothing about it but is often used to expand knowledge and provide a detailed description of something that the audience is already partially familiar with. The key idea is that you wish to engage your audience and convince them that what you are proposing is worth pursuing. In film-making, it’s used to convey an idea to people who need to agree to support it from a financial or authority perspective.

One of the most successful pitches in Hollywood history is (reputedly) the four word pitch used to convince a studio to fund the movie “Twins”. The pitch was “Schwarzenegger. De Vito. Twins.”

You are not trying to sell anything but you are trying to familiarise a group of people with your project idea and communicate enough information that the group can give you useful feedback to improve your project. You need to think carefully about how you will do this and I strongly suggest that you rehearse before presenting. Trust me when I say that very few people are any good at presentation without rehearsal and I will generally be able to tell the amount of effort that you’ve expended. An indifferent presentation says that you don’t care – and then you have to ask why anyone else would be that motivated to help you.

If you like the way I lecture, then you should know that I still rehearse and practice regularly, despite having been teaching for over 20 years.

How will it work?

You will have 10 minutes to present your project outline. During this time you will:

  • Identify, in one short and concise sentence, what your poster is about.
  • Clearly state the purpose.
  • Identify your data source.
  • Answer all of the key questions raised in the tutorial.
  • Identify your starting strategy, based on the tools given in the tutorial, with a rough outline of a timeline.
  • Outline your analysis methodology.
  • Summarise the benefits of this selection of data and presentation – why is it important/useful?
  • Show a rough prototype layout on an A3 format.

We will then take up to 10 minutes to provide you with constructive feedback regarding any of these aspects. Participants will be assessed both on the pitch that they present and the quality of their feedback and critique. Critique guides will be available for this session.

How do I present it?

This is up to you but I would suggest that you summarise the first seven points as a handout, and provide a copy of your A3 sketch, for reference during critique. You may also use presentations (PowerPoint, Keynote or PDF) if you wish, or the whiteboard. As a guideline, I would suggest no more than four slides, not including title, or your poster sketch. You may use paper and just sketch on that – the idea and your ability to communicate it are paramount at this stage, not the artfulness of the rough sketch.

Important Notes

Some people haven’t been getting all of their work ready on time and, up until now, this has had no impact on your marks or your ability to continue working with the group. If you don’t have your project ready, then I cannot give you any marks for your project and you miss out on the opportunity for group critique and response – this will significantly reduce your maximum possible mark for this project.

I am interested in you presenting something that you find interesting or that you feel will benefit from working with – or that you think is important. The entire point of this course is to give you the chance to do something that is genuinely interesting and to challenge yourself. Please think carefully about your data and your approach and make sure that you give yourself the opportunity to make something that you’d be happy to show other people, as a reflection of yourself, your work and what you are capable of.


We then had a session where we discussed ideas, looked at sources and started to think about how we could get some ideas to build a pitch on. I used small group formation and a bit of role switching and, completely unsurprisingly to the rest of you social constructivists, not only did we gain benefit from the group work but it started to head towards a self-sustaining activity. We went from “I’m not really sure what to do” to something very close to “flow” for the majority of the class. To me it was obvious that the major benefit was that the ice had been broken and, through careful identification of what to happen with the ideas and a deliberate use of Snow’s Cholera diagram as an example of how powerful a good (but fundamentally) simple visualisation could be, the group was much better primed to work on the activity.

The acid test will be next week but, right now, I’m a lot more confident that I will get a good set of first pitches. Given how much I was holding my breath, without realising it, that’s quite a good thing!

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