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Social Studies - GPS

Page history last edited by Maggie Meneghin 9 years, 7 months ago


Global Positioning System (GPS)


Graphic from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System


What is a GPS?


GPS is an abbreviation for Global Positioning System. A GPS uses satellite signals around the globe to create an accurate navigational system. This system can determine the latitude and longitude of a location on Earth or direct the user to a specified location. A GPS device can show the user’s location in relation to other landmarks on a digital map.  Many cars and even cell phones now have a GPS systems built into them, but there are also hand-held devices one can used on foot that are meant especially for global positioning services. Global positioning is used for military purposes, hunting, camping, hiking, geocaching, and navigation.


A hand-held GPS device may look like this: 




What are some features of a GPS?


          -Waypoint: these are geographic points that can be entered into the memory of a GPS. The points can be used as landmarks. For example: the school, the playground, the park, etc.  

          -Go-to function: this function guides the user to where they want to go using a signal on the digital map. In order to use this function, press the go-to button and select one of the waypoints. 

          -Digital compass: Handheld GPS devices include a digital compass on the screen to help the user navigate.


-This link includes detailed information on how to use a GPS handheld device:



-In this video, an archeological team explains how to plot and locate geographical points and using a hand-held GPS device.




Using GPS in the classroom:


 Quick Overview:


 There are a variety of ways to integrate GPS technology into a curriculum in many grade levels and content areas. GPS applies to history, geography, geology, ecology, and much more.

  Some examples of integrating GPS technology into the classroom include:

  • Mapping specified objects within the community
  • Locating historical or influential locations
  • Demonstrating a sense of direction
  • Estimating distance


-This is an excellent article from Education Week that explores some of the ways teachers are using GPS in the classroom.




Detailed information on integrating GPS in the classroom:


Educators can utilize GPS technology as a wonderful asset to the classroom by developing students connection with a specific landscape or town as well as teaching about the use of technology in the classroom.  GPS can be applied to many subjects but in particular the teaching of social studies can benefit from the implementation of technology including GPS.

For educators GPS can be used for a wide range of projects, ideas, and curriculum. The main application of this technology is for absolute location, relative movement and time transfer.  Some other applications include:

  • Geo-tracking
  • GPS tours
  • Map making
  • Geocaching
  • Geodashing
  • GPS drawing
  • Waymarking


If one or more of these ideas sounds interesting to you continue reading below for more information!



This fun activity will allow students to use GPS technology to create integral maps about where things travel away from them.  This technology makes it possible for students and educators alike to track things for security or for personal uses.  Teachers could use this technology to track Flat Stanley’s that are sent either around the country or around the world.  With this technology integration, students would have the ability to get on-line and track where their projects are sent and get a better idea of where countries are spatially.  Geo-tracking technology would allow students to create interactive maps from the information that they are receiving on a daily basis. 


GPS Tours

A GPS tour would be interesting for students after they have completed learning about a specific area as a field trip activity.  With GPS tours the teacher could create an individualized tour for the students that would allow them to explore specified places from the area.  For example, after learning about Colorado history, a teacher could create a GPS tour that would lead students through downtown Denver.  Instead of allowing the students to explore all of the area, GPS tours would allow the teacher to focus on areas that where around when Denver was originated.  This targeted approach would be a great interactive way to bring the curriculum to life. 


Map Making

Teachers could utilize GPS technology to create interactive maps that children are able to create for themselves.  This could be created in many different ways.  For example, students could create markers during their exploration that they would later graph as representations or the teacher could create waypoints that the students have to reach and then continue to map on their own.  GPS allows for flexibility when it come to this type of skill with map making. 



Geocaching is a navigating activity that involves using a GPS to find a specified location. Geocachers use global positioning devices to find caches around the world, using the latitude and longitude given by geocaching websites.  In these caches people log their location or find a small insignificant treasure. Geocaching is free and available anywhere and to anyone.  Containers are hidden all over the world in 100 countries and on all seven continents. Geocaching has been in full swing for 12 years and there are over 1,639,000 active caches around the world today. Geocaching can take on many forms from digital; with no active caches; to locating active caches with treasures inside. To apply this technology in a classroom would simply require a GPS receiver and a class with an active imagination.


A great way to introduce geocaching to a classroom would be to use it during a unit on Colorado history including a lesson on geography. Introduce Colorado as you would with your curriculum but supplement with this activity. As the teacher, you would need to work with a professional geocaching websites to locate caches around Colorado. Some caches will have things in them for your students to find and some can be electronic or virtual caches with no actual cache. I would encourage having a recording sheet as students go through the geocaching experience in order to bring in some literacy standards as well as social studies and technology standards. Students will get to know the environment and geography of Colorado as they utilize an exciting new technology. I would suggest multiple direct instruction lessons about using a GPS and how it applies to geocaching before beginning this activity.


-Here is a link that answers common geocaching questions:  http://www.geocaching.com/guide/default.aspx



Students use a GPS receiver to find selected locations around the world and take photos of what they find at that location. Unlike geocaching nothing is left at these locations, the reason to participate in this experience is getting to and observing the locations.   


To bring this into the classroom you could be talking about Colorado’s history and use the GPS receivers to travel to historical locations near your school or town. Students would have the chance to experience and empathize with people of different times as they walk to and travel to locations. The bases of this GPS game is to get to the most number of dash-points as possible in a given amount of time, for a classroom I would not focus on that aspect of geodashing. Students would be able to capture the dash-points by either artistic sketches or by utilizing photography. To further support students with becoming familiar and comfortable with technologies you could upload pictures to a class blog, website, or the geodashing website

-Need a site to upload to?  Try this one out:  http://geodashing.gpsgames.org/


GPS Drawing

The idea of this application is to get students to apply the use of GPS outside of geocaching or using it to get to a specific location.


To utilize this in a classroom would be much easier to accomplish because you would not have to leave the school grounds to participate in it. Students would use a GPS receiver to plot points that would create an image. To connect this to social studies you could teach the dimensions or boundaries of your states by having students draw this on your field. This is also a great way to bring your art specialist into the classroom to support you. We would encourage that you have students preplan what they are wanting to draw whether it is a symbol or a state. Another great way to use this technology is to have students GPS draw a theme for a social studies unit.



This is when you mark on a GPS receiver a walking or cycling path and these paths often include churches, restaurants and factory tours.


Incorporating this specific GPS technology into a classroom would be a great way to introduce being a citizen to a class as well as economics. Citizens of a town or city participate in the economy and utilize the resources provided by a town. Students would use GPS to become familiar with a specific route or line of businesses in their town. Another great way to insure students are learning is for them to apply this to mapmaking, specifically their way home or their home town.

GPS applications go farther than just getting us to our next location they can serve as a great tool for our students to use in and outside of our classrooms.


Potential Challenges:

The cost of GPS devices can range in prices from about $100-$500. As a teacher, research your school’s and district’s budget options for purchasing educational technology.


In order to function properly, a GPS needs to connect with the signal of at least three satellites. If students are in an area with limited connection to satellites, the GPS may not work.


Tell Me More!


-Do you want to know more about how this tool can be implemented in the classroom? If so, take a look at these links!



This link provides educators with the opportunity to explore how other teachers utilize GPS technology into their classrooms. These ideas include incorporation with history, geology, and science. Feel free to check out the link for more in depth information!



Check out this website for FREE downloadable worksheets and lessons for kids! The activities range from a playful nature to a deeper thinking and processing level.



This great website provides more information about the GPS technology as well as geocaching. It is helpful because it details information regarding how long it may take an educator to become familiar with the technology so that the implementation is effective. This would be a great resource for people who are just now considering the use of GPS devices in their classrooms.



Take a look at this great tutorial video that explains how to use a GPS unit in a step by step process. It not only explains the buttons on the device, but it also explains the various pages that are on the GPS device itself.



This video is a look into what exactly geocaching is. It would be a helpful link to show students as an introduction to using it in the classroom.



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