Owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, global positioning system (GPS) satellite technology is used by scientists, surveyors, delivery drivers, firefighters, pilots, and anyone who needs precise reference points for location, navigation, tracking, mapping, and time. The U.S. military relies on GPS and GIS (geographic information system) technology to map areas around the world contaminated by land mines and to produce maps for mine risk education.
Increasingly, K-12 educators are harnessing the power of GPS and GIS technology to support standards-based math, science, and social studies curricula. Traditional map-reading activities can be transformed into real-time adventures using handheld GPS devices that pinpoint precise locations and allow students to collect information outside the classroom for analysis when they return. GIS/GPS handheld tracking gadgets encourage students to think and work like real scientists, conservationists, and law enforcement personnel-asking questions, testing ideas, and recording information through real-world mapping.
Geocaching activities, once described as the sport in which players are the search engines, send students on "treasure hunts" using GPS devices to locate treasure caches hidden at precise coordinates. Field trips let users document plant and animal sightings and gain first-hand appreciation of seasonal variations. Are particular land uses concentrated in certain areas? What types of animals and plants might you find near stadiums, hospitals, railroad tracks, and flood plains? In comparing two neighborhoods, how do you know which one is older?
The U.S. Geological Survey offers several GIS lessons for students, including a look at North American earthquakes; Central American populations, birth rates, and life expectancy in relation to demographic data; and a lesson on European populations' relationship to landforms and climates.
ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), a company that specializes in products for land use analysis, provides sample science, social studies, and map lessons using GIS in the classroom
Earth Exploration Toolbook offers computer-based Earth science activities involving special analysis tools, while Investigating Earthquakes: GIS Mapping and Analysis invites students to use "GIS-ready" data to monitor earthquake activity and predict where the next big one will hit.
Handheld gadgets for GIS/GPS activities range widely in price; free Cetus GPS for Palm OS (you'll need a Palm PDA and GPS receiver, and possibly a receiver cable) can track and collect field data. GPS Visualizer is another free utility that creates maps and profiles from GPS tracks to help students plan excursions and visualize data.