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Mapping Rwanda


Two RIT professors have equipped students in a couple of Rwanda high schools with smart phones and tablets to map their communities. Professors Brian Tomaszewski and Anthony Vodacek are leading a two-year pilot study funded by the United Kingdom Department for International Development.

The students will use the equipment to collect and synthesize data from their surroundings. They might, for example, map cell-phone reception in a certain area, or create a map that shows the availability of electricity in an area. The project should improve students' spatial thinking skills, Tomaszewski and Vodacek say, and may have benefits beyond the classroom.

A detailed map showing areas lacking access to clean water, for example, could be used as a tool to advocate for government intervention, Tomaszewski and Vodacek say.

"Maps are power," Tomaszewski says.

Two schools are participating in the pilot program, and a third is acting as a control group. The students in the first two schools will be evaluated three times over the course of the program to see how they're progressing.

"We will want to know, 'Did this make an impact?'" Vodacek says. "Can we show that our intervention improved the students' spatial thinking?"

The National Research Council's 2006 report, "Learn to Think Spatially," talked about the lack of spatial thinking ability in U.S. students and recommended that spatial thinking become a central component of K to 12 education.

Tomaszewski says that it makes sense that this deficit would be found in students universally.

Spatial thinking uses the properties of space — such as scale, distance, and direction — to structure and solve problems. Tomaszewski uses the discovery of the DNA double helix by Francis Crick and James Watson as an example.

"They really used good spatial thinking," he says "They were able to sort of think in their minds how these molecules were spatially related to one another and hence made this groundbreaking discovery."