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LEAF Blog > Posts > Incorporating GPS Into Your Curriclum
November 28
Incorporating GPS Into Your Curriclum

​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 economic hardship.
•    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 hand!

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