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RIT Takes Community Mapping Project to Rwandan High School Students

In a two-year pilot project, led by the Rochester Institute Technology, Rwandan high school students are taking part in a geographic information systems curriculum that puts them in the role of scientist as they collect and analyze data using Android-based phones and tablets.

RIT Professors Brian Tomaszewski and Anthony Vodacek are leading the program, which is part of Rwanda's national Innovation for Education initiative and one of 26 projects the country is testing as a potential model for broader application. The project was funded by a $473,000 grant from the U.K.'s Department for International Development.

The activities are designed to help students develop spatial-thinking skills. Three high schools will be involved: two using the curriculum and one serving as a control to help measure the impact of the program. Teachers received training last month to help them integrate the spacial thinking curriculum into their classroom instruction.

"The National Research Council's Learn to Think Spatially report [2006] talked about the lack of spatial thinking ability in U.S. students, so we can only surmise that you could pretty much go anywhere in the world and have this issue," said RIT's Vodacek, a professor in the Center for Imaging Science, in a report released by RIT. "We've gone into some of these classrooms and there isn't a map on the wall. There isn't much of anything except a chalkboard and old computers."

For the pilot, 225 Rwandan high school students will use Android tablets and phones and open source mapping software to map natural resources in their communities. Data will be fed into a remote sensing system that is part of a separate project started by Vodacek ad funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

"Mapping land cover in Rwanda is difficult to do because the way the landscape is arranged," Vodacek said. "It is a complex, rugged terrain, with very small land cover plot sizes. Often, the scales of the remote sensing data are large, so you need a lot of ground truth. One of the things we're hoping is that the students working in these various communities will provide excellent ground truth, which will feed into [the remote sensing] research as crowd sourcing."

Two graduate students from National University of Rwanda are also participating in the project.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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