Classroom Technology

Educators Explore How to Use GPS for Teaching

Educators are exploring how students can use GPS technologies to tackle real-world problems in science and other areas
By Katie Ash — October 15, 2010 4 min read
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Elementary school pupils near Rochester, N.Y., are using global positioning systems to collect and plot data on the water quality of the streams that flow into Lake Ontario.

Meanwhile, middle school students in an earth science class in Syracuse, N.Y., mash up GPS technology with topographic maps to examine geological features in their community.

And students and adults across the country are embracing geocaching, a modern-day treasure hunt made possible by GPS technology. Geocaching, experts say, has direct implications for K-12 teaching and learning.

"[GPS] is a technology that is obviously embedded in our everyday lives,” says Joseph J. Kerski, the curriculum-development manager for the Redlands, Calif.-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, which develops GIS, or geographic information system, software. “From bus routing to airplane navigation to geocaching for recreational purposes, it’s one of those technologies that’s all around us now,” he says.

GPS units locate specific points based on a place’s latitude and longitude, while GIS makes it possible to map all the points and view them spatially.

How to Use GPS in Your Class


Use GPS to explore historic sites, such as battlefields, settlements, or cemeteries. Include information about what took place at the locations to draw a connection between the places students are seeing and the historic events that happened there.


Use GPS units to guide students to specific locations where they can observe the geologic features on the school’s campus. Ask students to describe these features and hypothesize about how they were formed.


Use GPS and GIS to plot specific points on a river or stream close to the school. Have students measure water quality at those points and ask them to research explanations for the differences in water quality in one area and another.

Both technologies can help students tackle real-world problems in an interdisciplinary and engaging way, says Kerski.

For example, students could use GPS to map all the trees on a school campus and then record data—such as their size, species, and condition—for a science class, he suggests. For a more socioeconomic look at their community, students could use the devices to map the vacant houses, or even graffiti, in their neighborhoods, Kerski says.

“This is an integrated, interdisciplinary set of tools,” he says. “And it’s not just the tool. It’s about students’ using those higher-order thinking skills and thinking critically about their world.”

Jim Kuhl, an earth science teacher at the 1,000-student Central Square Middle School north of Syracuse, has been using GPS technology with his students for more than a decade.

“I’ve always been interested in the cutting-edge technology, especially when the kids are interested in it, and you can use that interest to motivate them to learn about what you’re trying to teach,” he says.

To teach students how to read and interpret a topographic map, he pairs up the maps with geocaching, an activity in which students use GPS receivers to locate hidden points.

Kuhl asks students to map their routes on the topographical map, and when they reach the hidden points, they’re asked to describe what geographical features they see.

When there’s a satellite involved, “finding your latitude and longitude becomes really interesting,” he says.

‘Students as Scientists’

At around $75 per unit, a classroom set of GPS units is a realistic purchase for districts, says Sonny Portacio, the director of technology for the 8,500-student Escondido Union High School District, north of San Diego.

Putting the technology into the hands of students is both engaging and empowering, says Portacio, who also co-hosts a podcast with his wife, Sandy Portacio, about geocaching.

Although the use of GPS in education is still fairly limited, it is likely to increase rapidly in the years to come, says Burt Lo, a technology professional-development coordinator for the California Technology Assistance Project Region 6 and the author of the book GPS and Geocaching in Education.

“Many mobile devices and smartphones are coming equipped with GPS receivers that can be utilized for activities such as geocaching,” Lo says. “Also, teachers are becoming more comfortable with GPS receivers as they become more common in cars and other mobile devices.”

Spearheaded by three elementary schools in New York state’s Monroe BOCES #1, a conglomeration of 10 districts outside Rochester, the Stream Team project, which uses GPS and GIS to collect data about the water quality of streams feeding Lake Ontario, has since spread to schools throughout the country.

Students who take part in the project visit streams in their community to determine the water temperature, pH levels, and flow rate, as well as the amount of dissolved oxygen and phosphates in the water, among other measurements.

“We talk about students as scientists,” says Brian C. Smith, the instructional technology specialist for Monroe BOCES #1, “but with [this technology] we can actually have them be scientists.”

Students mark the coordinates of the locations where they take water samples in order to hypothesize about why the quality may differ from one section to the next, Smith says.

Getting students involved in their own community and having them collect real-world data, he says, establishes a sense of place for them.

“It’s a natural bridge to use GPS and geocaching to develop kids’ awareness to their location, their community, and their environment,” says Smith. “They start to understand where they are.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as Mapping Out Learning