by Chad Janowski
As you know, the opportunity to use hands-on technology and the chance
to get outside often excites and engages students. And, integrating the
Global Positioning System (GPS) into your classroom does just that.
However, as with any lesson, decide on your focus in advance. Is your
curriculum goal to teach students how to use GPS or is it simply a form
technology that you are using to collect data as part of another
lesson? Just like many other forms of technology we must sometimes
teach students how to use it, but then keep the focus on the curriculum
that we need to teach. If your lesson focus is the GPS technology, then
it is understandable that you would go into detail about the satellites
and how GPS works. Otherwise, keep the focus on the learning
objectives and treat the GPS like any other lab equipment.
GPS is a tool that can be used in all grade levels and in many
disciplines. However, by no means should you feel it necessary to add
GPS lessons to an already jam-packed curriculum. Instead, evaluate how
GPS utilization can enhance existing lessons. In many cases GPS can
provide a way to get students interested in collecting information about
their communities and provide real-world context to the curriculum. A
sampling of potential lessons are included below:
• Elementary students learning about maps can use GPS to mark the
perimeter and locations of playground equipment. When students begin to
learn about the coordinate systems, they could estimate the coordinates
of a feature on a map, then navigate to the estimated location to
determine how far off they were.
• When studying geography, students can locate local landmarks, historic sites, and geological features.
• Environmental science students participating in water quality
monitoring can save locations of sample sites for mapping and data
analysis. When plotted on a map, students can then hypothesize about
differences in data from different locations.
• Students could assist in monitoring the spread of invasive species,
by plotting the extent or garlic mustard or purple loosestrife.
• Forestry or horticulture students can save locations of trees and
shrubs on the school grounds or a local park. They can then identify
the species, monitor growth and health.
• Social studies students can mark vacant lots, or businesses in town
and compare to other socioeconomic factors to look for trends in
• Physical Education students can use GPS receivers to collect data
on maximum and minimum speeds when walking, running, or biking. They
could be also used to plan routes and calculate distances.
• While Geocaching by itself, seems to lack substantive educational
value, there are ways to modify this hobby to give it a cognitive kick.
Coordinates could be used to guide students and visitors on an
educational expedition in the community, at a local park, or even a
school forest. They could lead students to different outdoor learning
stations. They could even be used for virtual field trips using Google
Maps or Google Earth.
• Large-scale art is possible with GPS drawing. Students create
works of art by utilizing the tracking feature in a GPS. The Earth then
becomes their canvas.
In most cases, mapping of GPS coordinates can simply be accomplished in
Google Maps. Coordinates can simply be typed in the search box (N51
34.234 W114 32.124). Google maps will plot the location and mark it
with a temporary pin. Maps and locations can be saved and shared with
others when logged in to a Google account. More advanced users of GPS
may also utilize GIS (Geographic Information Systems) for plotting
locations. GIS requires more training but provides powerful analytical
tools for combining student collected data with data available from
other sources, including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,
NRCS Soil Surveys, and much more.
When instructing the students, keep it simple – don’t go over
instructions for features that are not necessary for student’s to use.
Put simple instructions for basic operations (i.e. saving a waypoint,
navigating to a waypoint) on notecards attached to clipboards. Try to
use the basic terminology that applies to all makes and models of GPS.
This will ensure that the skills that they gain in your class are
transferable to other classes, at home, or on the job. If possible, try
to partner students who have experience with GPS with novices. Ask the
novice to take charge of the GPS and the experienced partner to serve
as a coach.
Starting all GPS units prior to class and having them lock in to your
location will save wait time for the students. If the GPS units are
always used in the same general area this should not take long. If a
scout group on a camping trip in Canada used them last, it could take as
much as 15 minutes for some older GPS models to lock in to a new
location. Turing them on before the students use them will also allow
you to check the batteries and ensure that all units and other settings
are still as you wish. Always be certain to have extra batteries on