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Using GPS and Geocaching Engages, Empowers & Enlightens
Middle School Teachers and Students

Alice Christie

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Jonassen (1994) further summarizes how knowledge construction can be facilitated by teachers who focus on knowledge construction, not reproduction; present authentic tasks (contextualizing rather than abstracting instruction); and provide real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than pre-determined instructional sequences. He also encourages teachers to enable context- and content-dependent knowledge construction, support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, and represent the natural complexity of the real world

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, such as providing experience with the knowledge-construction process and offering various modes of representation; embedding learning in realistic, relevant, and social contexts; and encouraging ownership and self-awareness in the learning process.

According to Vygotsky (1978), students' problem solving skills fall into three categories:

       1. Skills that the student cannot perform;
       2. Skills that the student may be able to perform; and
       3. Skills that the student can perform with help.

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 20 years. Several other important tenets of constructivist learning that underlie the GPS/Geocaching Workshop described in this article follow:

  • Primary sources of data are used in order to ensure authenticity and real-world complexity.

  • Problem-solving, higher-order thinking skills and deep understanding are emphasized.

  • Exploration encourages students to seek knowledge independently and to manage the pursuit of their goals.

  • Learners are provided with opportunities for apprenticeship learning in which there is an increasing complexity of tasks, skills and knowledge acquisition.

  • Knowledge complexity is reflected in an emphasis on conceptual interrelatedness and interdisciplinary learning.

  • Collaborative and cooperative learning exposes learners to alternative viewpoints.

  • Assessment is authentic and interwoven into teaching.

Underlying Principles of the 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.


E6 Learning Model (Christie, 2006)

     Curriculum Principles                              Learning Process Principles

figure 1 


Figure 1. The E6 Learning Model

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, in the following section, 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.

GPS/Geocaching Workshop


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:

  • Understand the GPS coordinate system
  • Understand the GPS keypad
  • Increase understanding of mapping systems
  • Increase understanding of mathematical principles of angles, distances, triangulation, and direction
  • Use GPS units to navigate to a specified location
  • Understand the concept of direction and distance as represented on GPS units
  • Understand the principles of geocaching
  • Plan and implement curricular units that utilize GPS units and geocaching
  • Use GPS units to locate caches hidden on or near the workshop locale
  • Use GoogleEarth™ to provide data about locations of geocaches locally and globally
  • Conduct field work by collecting authentic data
  • Use real-world data to encourage higher order thinking skills in K-12 or university students
  • Problem solve when GPS units provide conflicting or confusing data
  • Problem solve when geocaches are not readily found

Time Frame

Three hours: one 3-hour session, or two 1.5-hour sessions

  • Workshop Overview and Goals – 5 minutes
  • Forming Teams and Assigning Roles – 10 minutes
  • Exploring GPS Units – 15 minutes
  • Geocaching – 45 minutes
  • Discussing the GPS Exploration and Geocaching Experience - 15 minutes
  • Discussing the Geocache Contents  - 30 minutes
  • Discussing Best Practices for GPS and Geocaching - 30 minutes
  • Reviewing Online Resources – 15 minutes
  • Applying New Skills to Individual Professional Responsibilities – 15 minutes

Prerequisite Skills

  • Basic computer skills
  • Openness to exploration

Materials Required

The workshop leader provides the following materials:

  • GPS Receivers
  • Geocaches (usually small, waterproof plastic box containing clues that help participants understand new concepts in any curricular area)
  • Examples of curricular units and lessons plans that use GPS units and geocaching
  • An extensive Web site of online resources on using GPS receivers and geocaching


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 this section, I describe three workshops/lessons that use GPS receivers and geocaching; 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 GPS, 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



Constructivist Principles




Learning takes time

Tortoise, hare, watch, hourglass



Learning incorporates prior knowledge

Building blocks



Learning uses multiple intelligences

Representation of each (example: guitar for musical)



Learning is a process requiring tools/scaffolding

Tools, light bulb



Learning is global

Globe, circular bracelet, 4-port hub



We learn through our mistakes

Eraser, bumpy ball, white-out



Learning is social and interactive

Helping Hands earrings, silly putty



Learning embraces many perspectives

Box of crayons



We learn through discovery/problem solving

Flashing ball, blocks, handheld puzzle



Learning is collaborative

Glue, button with three people holding hands



Learning is hands-on

Hand, glove



Learning is reflective

Loon reflection, crystal

Roles for Team Members

Team Member A


Records search process and discussion

Team Member B


Reports on search process and discussion

Team Member C


Monitors times and turns with GPS units

Team Member D


Photographs group in action (inside and outside)

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 10, Issue 1, 2007
ISSN 1097-9778
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