Shawn Douglas

Wednesday - May 19, 2010

Field training on using GPS with students from Southwest Texas Junior CollegeWhen I told my editor that I was going to write about GPS and the classroom this week, he half-jokingly asked me if it was going to be about “teachers tracking the whereabouts of students.” Well, he was partially correct.

The fact is that the fueled interest in GPS technology has brought prices down for people looking to invest in it. Additional advances such as integration with WIFI, Bluetooth, and radio, all on a single chip, means that cell phones and other mobile devices will be able to easily act as GPS devices. The tech can even be accessed cheaply using the USB port of a supported computer or mobile device. Educators have been quick to catch on that this affordability and portability makes GPS an interesting tool to include in the class curriculum.

GPS (which stands for Global Positioning System) has been around since 1978, when the first satellite was launched. The system was added to regularly until in 1994 there were 24 separate satellites, completing the intended “constellation.” Since then, replacements and updates have been planned and made at regular intervals. The constellation of satellites has served a plethora of uses for military, commercial, and independent entities around the world.

Educators have also gotten into the act, using GPS technology to teach a wide range of topics. At its roots GPS has numerous scientific principles which can be taught, including how physics and general relativity can be practically applied to it. When students first learn that there’s a minute but important time difference between the satellites and Earth-bound equipment, a wide array of responses and discussion typically evolves.

When teaching the science of it isn’t applicable to educators’ classes, then they still can turn to using GPS as a tool in a wide variety of geography, history, math, or science lessons and projects. Gerry Swingle, a high school science teacher in Arnold, Nebraska, has found a way to combine GPS with history and science, encouraging the creation of Web pages as part of a project-based approach to learning.

The EarthCache program offers another way for educators to include GPS into lessons and projects involving a variety of disciplines. “EarthCache sites … are ‘virtual’ caches that provide the visitor who finds them with new knowledge or insights about the location itself…” states the teacher’s guide. A person or group uses the EarthCache Web site to find caches that are accessible and uses a GPS device to track it down. “However, because they are meant to be educational, all EarthCache sites that are posted on the EarthCache Web site must provide some scientific information about the site,” states the guide.

Even debate and critical thinking skills can be enhanced when discussing the ethics of GPS tracking and monitoring. With some chronically truant students in Texas being forced to wear GPS trackers and other people fearing being tracked through their cell phones, there are plenty of issues to be debated about the ethics of GPS usage.

Educators and not-for-profits have been collecting a wide variety of lesson plans and curriculum suggestions for GPS in the classroom. Below are a few additional resources at your disposal. What other creative ways can educators use GPS in the classroom? Are there any additional online resources that you would suggest to educators and enthusiasts alike?

The GIS 2 GPS Portal:
This site is a one-stop shop for all things GIS (Global Information Systems) and GPS. They even have an extensive list of GPS-related lesson plans and materials for educators.

Linda Ferguson and the Geo Literacy Project:
Ferguson has put together this site, explaining not only the educational theory behind GPS in the classroom, but also listing a wide variety or activities and lesson plans involving GPS.

(Photo used under Creative Commons attribution license: / CC BY 2.0)