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Using GPS and Geocaching Engages, Empowers, and Enlightens Middle School Teachers and Students
Alice Christie, Ph.D.
Technology is an integral and growing part of daily living in the twenty-first century. The challenge, then, for teachers, is to use technology effectively in classrooms to help students take ownership for learning and develop the practical and critical thinking skills necessary to better understand the world around them. To meet this challenge, teachers can use an emerging technology tool, GPS receivers, and an emerging GPS-based activity, geocaching, to transform their middle school classrooms from teacher-centered environments to exciting, empowering, exploratory environments that focus on student engagement in the learning process.As the world becomes more connected, managed, and observed through the use of computers and other technologies, K-12 and university students have increased opportunities to have the world at their fingertips – whether using the Internet, global positioning systems (GPS), satellite imagery (GoogleEarth™), or participating in a geocaching experience.
Using these tools and activities gives classroom teachers opportunities to instill in students a curiosity about geography, science, mathematics and the world in which they live. GPS units are multidisciplinary, inquiry-driven, field-based tools useful across the K-12 and university curricula.In this article, I provide a professional development model for teachers learning to use GPS units and geocaching. This model, which is equally applicable with middle school students, incorporates the characteristics of active, engaged learning and constructivist learning environments. I also provide (1) descriptions of three other GPS/geocaching workshops for a variety of audiences, (2) comments from teachers about their experiences learning to use GPS receivers and geocaching, (3) numerous online resources, and (4) concrete steps to create integrated curricular units/lessons that use GPS units and geocaching for teachers wishing to incorporate these emerging technologies to spark student learning and raise student awareness of the world around them. Finally, I provide a podcast (that can be viewed on the Internet or heard on an iPod) that gives an overview of using GPS receivers and geocaching in education.
DEFINITION OF TERMS
Global Positioning System (GPS) is a $12 billion Satellite Navigation System consisting of 24 satellites (plus a few spares) deployed and maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense. Each satellite passes around the earth twice in a 24-hour period at an altitude of about 12,500 miles. The satellites continuously broadcast position and time data to users throughout the world. Deployment of the satellites began in 1978, and the system became fully operational (uninterrupted global coverage) in 1995. GPS provides satellite signals that can be processed in a GPS receiver, enabling the receiver to compute one's position on the face of the earth (often indicated in terms of latitude and longitude).
GPS Receivers (also referred to as GPS Units) are used in cars, boats, airplanes, and even in cellular phones. Handheld GPS receivers are carried by hikers, surveyors, map makers, and others who need to know where they are. The GPS device receives data from the closest satellites to determine the unit's exact location, elevation, speed, and time. Inexpensive GPS receivers available to civilians are as accurate as those used by the military today. Currently, there are millions of civilian users of GPS and GPS receivers worldwide. A GPS receiver communicates with GPS satellites to provide information to its user. A standard GPS receiver will place the user's location on a map at any given location using latitude and longitude coordinates. It will also trace the user's path from one location to another. With this information and its built-in clock, the receiver can give the user the following information:
Geocache comes from the terms geo (earth) and cache (hidden supply or treasure). Historically, explorers and miners used caches to hide food or other items for emergency purposes. People still hide caches of supplies today for similar reasons. Animals and birds also hide food in caches for later use. Today’s geocaches are usually inexpensive trinkets or clues in waterproof containers with the cache's coordinates. These coordinates, along with other details of the location, are posted on the Internet so other geocachers obtain the coordinates and seek out the cache using their GPS handheld receivers.
A geocache typical of those that I use in my workshops is pictured to the left
Geocaching is an engaging adventure activity for GPS users. Locating a geocache is a good way to take advantage of the features and capability of a GPS unit. The basic idea is to have individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the Internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches. See a video on geocaching.
The author conducting a GPS/Geocaching Workshop with ASU graduate students
REVIEW OF RESEARCH
Since GPS receivers are emerging technologies, and geocaching is an emerging educational strategy, there is little, if any, formal research on these topics. However, there is extensive research on how constructivist learning environments engage students and enhance learning. This paper espouses the use of GPS receivers and geocaching to help create such student-centered learning environments.The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, 2006) maintains that traditional educational practices no longer provide students with all the necessary skills for survival in today's world. They believe that today’s students must apply strategies for solving problems using appropriate tools for learning, collaborating, and communicating. Further, they suggest that teachers seek to create new learning environments that facilitate such strategies.The following chart from ISTE lists characteristics representing traditional approaches to learning and corresponding strategies associated with new learning environments:
ISTE (2006) states that learning environments should prepare students to:
The theoretical basis for this article is constructivism. “Constructivism does not claim to have made earth-shaking inventions in the area of education; it merely claims to provide a solid conceptual basis for some of the things that, until now, inspired teachers had to do without theoretical foundation” (von Glasersfeld, 1995, p 15). Jonassen (1991) notes that many educators and cognitive psychologists have applied constructivism to the development of learning environments. Teachers, he believes, should:
Jonassen (1994) further summarizes how knowledge construction can be facilitated by teachers who:
Wilson & Cole (1991) reiterate these principles and note the importance of using errors as a mechanism to provide feedback to learners' understandings. Honebein (1996) notes several other goals for the design of constructivist learning environments:
According to Vygotsky (1978), students' problem solving skills fall into three categories:
Scaffolding, the process of guiding the learner from what is presently known to what will be known, allows students to perform tasks that would normally be slightly beyond their ability without guidance from the teacher. When teachers scaffold student learning, students often take greater responsibility for their own learning and challenge themselves to go beyond both teacher and individual expectations. Murphy (1997) synthesizes the research on constructivism in education during the last twenty years. Several other important tenets of constructivist learning that underlie the GPS/Geocaching Workshop described in this article follow:
UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES OF TH E6 PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT MODEL
The professional development model described in this article, which I have developed and coined the E6 Learning Model, is based on six principles: three that guide the curriculum, and three that guide the learning process. The three curricular principles are engagement, exchange of information, and empowerment. The three learning process principles are exploration, explanation, and exhibition. Teachers are learners, so professional development must (1) engage teachers in personally and professionally relevant learning, (2) allow for extensive information exchange among participants, and (3) empower teachers to understand and use new technologies and strategies effectively in their classrooms. The professional development workshop, in turn, needs to be structured to (1) provide learners with opportunities and time to explore new technologies and teaching/learning strategies, (2) explain real-world data, inconsistencies, or problems using critical thinking and informed decision-making, and (3) exhibit their new knowledge gained through active, exploratory, inquiry-based learning in ways appropriate to the digital age in which they live and teach. View the E6 Learning Model.
SPECIFIC APPLICATION OF THE E6 LEARNING MODEL IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
In this section I first describe how I apply the E6 Learning Model in GPS and Geocaching Workshops for teachers, then I provide three specific examples of workshops I have offered practicing teachers that can be used equally well in K-12 settings. These three workshops were designed for different audiences and explore different knowledge realms:
This professional development model has three overarching goals: (1) learn how to use GPS receivers, (2) learn to geocache, gather real-world data, and problem-solve authentic and personally meaningful challenges or inconsistencies, and (3) explore new ideas in any curricular area relevant to professional development or K-12 education.
Participating in a geocache activity helps learners understand the features and capability of GPS receivers. Through a hands-on workshop, teachers learn how to use GPS units, digital data, and online resources that support these technologies. By gathering and using authentic data, workshop participants (1) engage in the scientific process, (2) problem solve as needed to explore the options on their GPS units and find their geocaches, (3) collaborate with other learners to explore and explain the world around them, and (4) exhibit how these new technologies can be used effectively in their own classrooms. Finally, learners explore a new knowledge realm relevant to their own professional development or their K-12 curriculum. All workshops use a learn-by-doing, constructivist approach to ensure that participants are actively engaged, challenged to learn and integrate new concepts, working collaboratively with other participants, learning from their mistakes, and applying their new understandings/skills to their own teaching/learning situations.
Purpose and Goals
Upon completion of GPS/Geocaching Workshop, participants will be able to:
Three hours: one 3-hour session, or two 1.5-hour sessions
The workshop leader provides the following materials:
No external, multiple-choice test is needed to assess student success. Instead, evidence of student success comes through observation. The workshop leader continually monitors whether students are learning new concepts and skills based upon participants’ behaviors using the GPS units while searching for geocaches. The workshop leader adjusts her instructional techniques, pace of instruction, and need for individualized instruction based on these observations. Further evidence of student success will be participants’ level of interest in using GPS units and geocaching in their own classrooms, their professional development, and their personal lives at the conclusion of the workshop.
SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS OF THE E6 LEARNING MODEL IN K-12 SETTINGS
In the next section, I describe three workshops/lessons that use GPS receivers and geocaching, but each focuses on a specific curricular area and is designed for a specific audience. Workshop A is for teachers and provides opportunities to explore ways to create constructivist learning environments. Workshop B is for middle school students and provides opportunities to sort, categorize, and graph a number of related objects (such as paper clips of various colors and sizes). Workshop C is for students, teachers, parents, or community members. It provides opportunities to learn about Global Positioning Systems, GPS receivers, and geocaching.
Workshop A: Constructivist Learning Workshop for Teachers
Purpose and Goals
During this session, participants will work in teams to complete an engaging and interactive geocaching activity in an outdoor location. They will use GPS units to locate hidden caches that provide clues to the central principles of constructivist learning. After discussing what they have learned from this problem-based activity, they will discuss ways that constructivist learning environments can help create active, reflective, student-centered learning that is socially relevant and personally meaningful to learners. This workshop is extended by the facilitator’s Web site. Description of Geocache Contents
Description of Geocache Contents
Roles for Team Members
Team Member A - Recorder - Records search process and discussion
Topics for Discussion
Since the role of the teacher in constructivist learning environments is that of coach or facilitator, it is important that the teacher engage in extensive planning of this hands-on learning activity. Gathering meaningful and representative items to serve as “clues” that will stimulate thinking and discussion among students is vitally important to the success of this workshop. Two idea webs, Web 1 and Web 2, created with Inspiration™ 8.0, show what the students found in each cache (circled in red) and ideas students generated about constructivist learning after discussing each of the “clues” found in the twelve geocaches.
Workshop B: Classifying, Sorting and Graphing Workshop for K-12 Students
Purpose and Goals
Teams of students will use GPS units to locate geocaches that their instructor has hidden around their school campus. Students will return to the classroom with the recovered geocaches, examine and discuss the contents of the geocaches, determine a number of possible ways to categorize the contents of each geocache, and then use Excel™ to create spreadsheets and graphs that represent the categorized data. The contents of each geocache can be sorted in two or more ways.
Photo of Representative Geocaches for the Sorting and Categorizing Workshop
Geocache Contents (Link to Pictures)
Representative Graphs of Sorted and Categorized Geocache Contents
Workshop C: Global Positioning System Workshop for Teachers, K-12 Students, Parents, or Community Members
Purpose and Goals
The purpose of this two-hour, hands-on workshop is to familiarize participants with the history of the international Global Positioning System, how GPS receivers work, who uses GPS receivers, tips on purchasing GPS receivers, and the growing worldwide phenomenon of geocaching. Students will learn by doing, using GPS receivers to locate geocaches that contain clues about each of the workshop topics. After finding their geocaches, each team will discuss their clues and decide how to best share this information with other teams. Sharing places each team in the role of expert and allows all teams to learn from each other.
Prior to this workshop, I created and hid 15 geocaches. Each geocache contained written clues on five topics: the history of GPS, how GPS works, who uses GPS, purchasing GPS receivers, and geocaching. The clues for each topic are listed below and at the follow link.
History of GPS
Comments from Teachers Attending GPS and Geocaching Workshops
In this section, I provide verbal comments on workshop participants’ experiences as well as graphic summaries of student responses to the GPS/Geocaching Workshops. Overall, students (adult learners) knew little about GPS receivers or geocaching prior to the workshops, but were eager to learn about new technologies that their students (and their families) might be using now and in the future. They found the workshops to be engaging, empowering, enlightening, energizing, personally meaningful, and relevant for use in K-12 classrooms.When queried about their experiences with GPS receivers and geocaching to find clues about a specific curricular topic, students commented on a variety of aspects of the workshop. The following are representative comments:
Hands-on nature of the experience:
Collaborative nature of the experience:
Engaging nature of the experience:
Thought-provoking nature of the experience:
Suggestions for improvements to the workshop:
Ways to incorporate GPS and geocaching into K-12 classrooms:
The idea web (created with Inspiration™), which the workshop participants entitled What We Learned About GPSs and Geocaching, interestingly, does not comment on any specifics of using GPS technology; instead, it focused on the learning process, zeroing in on five areas participants found most important: collaboration, sense of excitement and engagement, mistakes, discovery learning, and teacher considerations.
Applying the Model in Middle School Classrooms
This hands-on, learn-by-doing model of professional development is equally applicable in middle school classrooms. Once teachers have experienced this model - and been in the role of learners working with other learners to solve problems - they can apply this model in their own classrooms. Teachers will need to modify the activity to align with specific state and local standards and grade level or developmental level of their students. But the principles of using GPS receivers, geocaching, and discovery learning remain the same. Basically, middle school teachers need to follow these steps in planning similar workshops for their classrooms:
The following example illustrates a sixth grade teacher’s unit in which students plan a family vacation. Students, in groups of four, explore one of eight possible vacation destinations. In addition, students investigate expenses for travel and overnight accommodations. Finally, each group creates a brochure advertising their family vacation to share with other class members, other sixth grade classes, and their parents. Teachers can easily integrate numerous technologies, including a GPS/geocaching activity, into this cross-curricular unit.The teacher decides to introduce students to eight vacation destinations through a GPS/geocaching activity. She/he chooses eight US National Parks because his/her standards-based social studies curriculum specifies that students understand the National Park System in the United States. The teacher then locates/creates clues to be placed in each of the geocache boxes. Clues can take may forms including:
Teams of students locate the geocaches and then examine and discuss the contents of each geocache to increase their understanding of key curricular ideas. The charts below summarize possible destinations and clues for each sixth grade team participating in this GPS/geocaching lesson/activity on US National Parks:
Clues for Geocaches for Each of Eight Teams
Red Team: Yosemite National Park: Sierra Nevada, CA
Blue Team: Yellowstone National Park: ID,MT,WY
Green Team: Grand Canyon National Park: Grand Canyon, AZ
Yellow Team: Glacier National Park: Northwest Montana, MT
Orange Team: Mount Rainier National Park: Ashford, Enumclaw, Packwood, Wilkeson, WA
Brown Team: Everglades National Park: Miami, Naples, and Homestead, FL
Purple Team: Badlands National Park: Southwestern, SD
White Team: Bryce Canyon National Park: Bryce Canyon, UT
There are numerous online resources that explain and support the use of GPS units and geocaching in education. These are divided into a number of categories for easy references for teachers wishing to extend their understanding of using GPS units, geocaching, or GoogleEarth™ in their classrooms. Links to relevant sites are listed below:
Comprehensive sites on using GPS and geocaching in Education
Articles about teachers using GPS receivers and/or geocaching
Professional development for teachers on GPS receivers and/or geocaching
Articles about K-12 students using GPS receivers
Articles on using GPS and geocaching in education
Articles on GoogleEarth™
I use GPS receivers and geocaching activities in my graduate classes at Arizona State University. To view any of my classes in action, click on a link below and then scroll through the photo gallery. To view the larger version of any photo, simply double-click on that photo.
I also am an active geocacher and user of GPS receivers for hiking and exploring the world around me. I love introducing students, friends, relatives, and even total strangers to the fun, challenging, and exciting opportunities that GPS units and geocaching offer. Dr. Christie Geocaching.
In my GPS and Geocaching Podcast I explain the global positioning system that circles our globe, GPS receivers, and geocaching. I take you on a geocache hunt near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and give you hints on finding and hiding geocaches. Finally, I discuss how teachers can enhance student learning through the use of geocaching in their K-12 classrooms.
Teachers can create technology-rich, constructivist learning environments that engage students in student-centered, personally meaningful, authentic, and collaborative learning that is inquiry-based, requires informed decision-making, views mistakes as opportunities for growth, and values information exchange among all learners. One plausible way to achieve this goal is to use GPS receivers and geocaching in K-12 classrooms. This article provided a theoretical rationale (Christie, 2006, E6 Learning Model) for such an approach. It also provided specific examples of classroom activities that incorporate GPS units and geocaching, specific steps a teacher should take to create similar curricular lessons, as well as examples of clues teachers could include in geocaches to increase student understanding of any curricular area. Finally, it provided numerous online resources (and a podcast) that provide teachers with additional ideas for making GPS receivers and geocaching integral tools in their engaging, empowering and enlightening classrooms.
Honebein, P. (1996). Seven goals for the design of Constructivist learning environments. In B. Wilson, Constructivist learning environments, pp. 17-24. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
ISTE (2006). All Children Must Be Ready for a Different World. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from http://cnets.iste.org/intro2.html
Jonassen, D. (1991). Objectivism vs. Constructivism. Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(3), 5-14.
Jonassen, D. (1994, April). Thinking technology. Educational Technology, 34(4), 34-37.
Murphy, E. (1997). Constructivism: From Philosophy to Practice (Report No. SP 039 420). St. John's, NL Canada: Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED444966). Retrieved December 1, 2006 from:
von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). A constructivist approach to teaching. In L. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.). (1995). Constructivism in education, (pp.3-16). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilson, B. & Cole, P. (1991) A review of cognitive teaching models. Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(4), 47-64.
About the Author
Dr. Alice Christie is an exemplary teacher with forty years of experience in both K-12 and university classrooms. She is a frequent presenter and keynote speaker at regional, national and international educational technology conferences. She was recently named as one of four Arizona State University President's Professors.
Alice is an experienced GPS user and geocacher. She has taught numerous GPS and geocaching workshops that her participants describe as highly effective, instructional, and applicable in K-12 and university classrooms.
She has located geocaches across the country and has hidden many geocaches in Arizona. She finds each geocaching experience a learning experience.
Dr. Alice Christie will be presenting two three-hour workshops on using GPS receivers and geocaching in K-12 classrooms on Monday, June 25, 2007 at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta, GA