BYU student organization shares significance of a dot on a map

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Clockwise from bottom left: Think Spatial president Roman Huerta and members Jeffrey Stark, Cassie Howe and Ryan Shields. Think Spatial is a BYU student organization advised by Brandon Plewe that creates maps and other spatial graphics for publications. (Jessica Olsen)

Five students sit at their computers, feverishly working away in a quiet room tucked away on the eighth floor of the Kimball Tower.

The small group makes up Think Spatial, a student organization advised by geography associate professor Brandon Plewe. The group creates maps for publications.

Think Spatial’s workspace represents a small area — a tiny dot among a million points on a map. But the group sees the significance of a dot on a map, and this understanding motivates them in their work.

“I love maps because I’ll look at a map from anywhere in the world and I ask, ‘What is there? What is this little city in Thailand? Who lives there?'” said senior Roman Huerta, president of Think Spatial.

Think Spatial member Ryan Shields said the group operates like a Geospatial Intelligence System consultant firm would in the real world. The students manage finances, create the maps and interact with clients, and their advisor acts as qualitative control.

The group said they make maps for various venues and reasons; the maps can be used to show patterns, correlations to points and give context to readers.

Think Spatial often creates maps for religious books, showing things such as the traveling exhibit of the Joseph Smith papyri prior to being in the LDS Church’s possessions.

A different map the students made required them to look at digital imagery of ancient temple ruins in order to create an archeological map of an ancient temple.

“Geography is not just states and capitals,” Huerta said. “It’s a hard science. We learn how to program, how to deal with software.”

For the past three years BYU Religious Studies Center’s executive editor Devan Jensen has worked with the organization for BYU’s Religious Studies publications.

“Maps orient readers visually to the content,” Jensen said. “They help us understand how all the parts relate.”

Jensen drew a comparison between the significance of a dot on a map and, referencing a Linda Ellis poem, a dash on a gravestone; the dash represents what happens in a person’s life between birth and death.

“There’s a story behind every dot,” Jensen said.

For Shields, maps became the story of his childhood. He said he would look at maps and think of the Dr. Seuss phrase, “Oh, the places you’ll go.” Shields grew up in Nebraska and only occasionally vacationed to Utah to see family.

“Maps were kind of a way to branch out and experience the world,” Shields said. “It helps you feel a certain connectedness to the world.”

Though mapmaking is itself a tedious and arduous task, according to Think Spatial member Jeffrey Stark, the team agreed it’s worth it because maps are important.

“Maps are power,” Huerta said.

Shields also said there’s a certain sense of gratitude that comes with an appreciation of maps and the technology allowing modern-day society to obtain accurate data.

“There’s a sense of gratitude for understanding maps so well and feeling a little more connected to our brothers and sisters in the world,” Shields said.