A few hundred teenagers in Rwanda are about to walk out of their science classrooms and map their world using smart phones and tablet computers provided by two scientists from Rochester Institute Technology.
The community-mapping project asks the students to think like scientists. Whether this leads some of them to science careers or to advocate for climate-change measures, the experience will give them problem-solving skills and a new perspective.
RIT professors Brian Tomaszewski and Anthony Vodacek are implementing high school science curriculum centered on geographic information systems (GIS) technology. Their two-year pilot study is funded with £294,712 ($473,000) from the U.K. Department for International Development in support of the Innovation for Education, a national initiative the Rwanda Ministry of Education launched earlier this year. The project is one of 26 programs the ministry will consider adopting as national models.
The curriculum Tomaszewski and Vodacek developed will train 225 high school students in the Huye and Gisagara districts in southwestern Rwanda to map the natural resources in their communities using tablet computers and smart phones.
The students will learn to use the geographic information system technology embedded within the electronic devices to collect and synthesize data from their surroundings. The assignments will teach them the spatial-thinking skills needed to navigate and make their own maps.
Spatial thinking uses the properties of space, such as scale, distance and direction, to structure and solve problems ranging from simple navigation with a map to complex scientific inquiry, Tomaszewski says. It drives his research about the science behind geographic information systems—information tools and interactive maps—and Vodacek’s use of remotely gathered imagery to study land cover change, monitor wildfires and assess water quality.
“My interest in mapping technology coupled with Tony’s interest in environmental science gives our collaboration a really great synergy,” says Tomaszewski, assistant professor of information sciences and technology at RIT.
Their project focuses on three high schools in Rwanda. Two schools will receive the spatial-thinking curriculum, tablet computers and smart phones; the third school will serve as a control to statistically verify the program’s impact, Tomaszewski says.
The students will use computers equipped with the Android operating system to run open-source mapping technology. The availability of free software makes the community-mapping program feasible as a pilot project and, possibly, implemented on a national scale.