GPS and Learning

from Educators' eZine


Since 1993, there has been a network of satellites in space that work together to indicate specifically where on earth a person or object is located. This network is known as the Global Positioning System (GPS). A GPS handheld device interprets these signals from space and indicates a location (latitude and longitude) by using Hours, Minutes and Seconds, a common format used by geologists and Global Information System (GIS) specialists.

Until recently, this technology was reserved specifically for military use. In May 2000, due to commercial manufacturer pressure, this technology was opened up for general public use.

With GPS technology available for public use, a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer wanted to test the network’s accuracy. He placed a container holding a few objects in the woods and posted the coordinates on the web. He asked others to find it, sign the included log, and “take some stuff, leave some stuff.” He dubbed this the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt”. Matt Stum joined two familiar words, the prefix “Geo” to describe Earth and cache to describe both computer memory (since GPS devices use computer technology) and a hiding place used to store items. The word Geocache was born and the GPS Stash Hunt was renamed Geocaching.

Today, handheld GPS technology has become more affordable to the point that people are using them in automobiles, boats, airplanes, and simply walking around to find items and locations. Since costs have been dramatically reduced, educators can use it with a class or staff as a learning or team-building tool.

Educational Ideas

Author Jeff Brown writes a series of books about a character named Flat Stanley, which has become the Flat Stanley Project. Stanley was flattened by a bulletin board at school. He wants to travel, but finds it is too expensive to fly or take a train. His family decides to fold him up like a letter and mail him off for a series of adventures. Classrooms across the world use this story as a launching pad for classroom projects. Teachers have students send Flat Stanley to various cities or countries and ask for pictures and information about his travels. Flat Stanley has even traveled around the world in the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Teachers can modify this lesson concept and incorporate the use of Travel Bugs. Travel Bugs resemble military dog tags, and each tag has a unique serial number. These numbers allow the owner to track where this bug has been and any adventures it encountered along the way.

You can also set a goal for your bug. For example, a travel bug could be set loose in Buffalo, New York for a football game. A goal could be to have the bug visit each of the professional football stadiums for a game. The finders of this bug will have to take a picture, upload the image to the website, and share any exciting stories while at the game.

There are valuable mathematical implications as well. Students can convert each hour, minute and/or second to terms more familiar to them such as feet, yards or miles – and, because we live in an increasingly globalized world, even learn the metric equivalents of these measurements. Either will help students determine how far they are from a desired location. Students can calculate how far a travel bug has traveled, or how much farther it needs to go in order to reach its goal.

Geocaching is a global activity, with caches in 222 countries to date, and that number is growing. It opens up opportunities for students to learn about other countries as well. Imagine the possibilities a student has if their travel bug goes to some exotic country and the knowledge they can gain from locals of that country. You would no longer have to try to find someone to become a pen pal; the pen pals would in a sense find you.

As a “cacher,” you will have the opportunity to see the damage caused to a place by some thoughtless people and how it affects wildlife. Various caches include a garbage bag; a note encourage finders to take the bag and clean up the surrounding area. This is known as “Cache In, Trash Out.” Such a “Cache In Trash Out Day” is an opportunity for geocachers to help clean up the parks and other cache-friendly places throughout the world. Through our volunteer efforts, we help preserve the natural beauty of our outdoor resources.” This international event could open a student’s eyes on how to respect and care for nature’s natural environment.

As geocaching is still a relatively new technology, above is just an overview of ways geocaching can build on a students reading, writing, math, and technology skills. As the concept in education grows, new ideas will also be born.

Team Building

While geocaching can be considered by many to be an individual activity, the reality is that you are better off working as a team. Geocaching is a great way to encourage and build on a teamwork concept. Imagine a day that different departments, divisions, or content areas get together to achieve a common goal, finding a hidden treasure. In the process of finding this treasure, they foster the camaraderie necessary to achieve another goal, student achievement.

Activities like these can be easily completed at the beginning of a school year, where it would be a fun ice breaking or get-to-know-you activity, or during the school year, when you need to rekindle the fire at a school. While the Geocaching Website offers a great database of caches to find, you can plant your own for team building activities. Place items in these caches, and challenge the teams to bring back as many of the placed objects as they can in a designated amount of time. The team that brings back the most wins a prize, such as lunch paid for by the school.

Costs associated with Geocaching

While new technology is often considered expensive, the cost of a GPS device is fairly reasonable. Entry-level models can cost as little as $85.00. This is primarily the only cost that one would need to incur. The geocaching Website offers free subscriptions as well as premium memberships for $30 a year, or $3.00 a month. The free Website is all you need to get to most of the caches. The premium subscription allows you access to member only caches, as well as a few other nice features.


Handheld GPS devices are another example of how mobile technology can be used to accelerate the learning of today’s students. Students have become more comfortable with technology than we could have ever imagined. Unfortunately, it has also led many students to become more socially isolated as they work from their home computers. Geocaching is a fun and exciting way to get students outside and exploring the world that surrounds them while using the technology they love.

Email:Charles R. Sinicki



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