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

Alice Christie

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This article provides a theoretical rationale (E6 Learning Model) for creating technology-rich, constructivist learning environments that use GPS receivers and geocaching in K-12 classrooms and engage students in student-centered, personally meaningful, authentic, and collaborative learning. It also provides examples of classroom activities that incorporate GPS units and geocaching, steps for teachers to create similar lessons, and a curricular example that teachers can modify to increase student understanding of any curricular area. Finally, it provides 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.

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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, global positioning systems (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, GPS units, 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 to spark student learning and raise student awareness of the world around them. Finally, I provide a podcast 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, mapmakers, 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 users the following information:

  • How far they've traveled (odometer)

  • How long they've been traveling

  • Their current speed (speedometer)

  • Their average speed

  • A "bread crumb" trail showing users exactly where they have traveled on the map

  • The estimated time of arrival at a destination if the users maintain their current speed

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 typical geocache used in workshops

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.

author in workshop

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:

Table 1. A comparison of traditional and new learning environments

Traditional Learning Environments

New Learning Environments

Teacher-centered instruction

Student-centered learning

Single sense stimulation

Multisensory stimulation

Single path progression

Multipath progression

Single media


Isolated work

Collaborative work

Information delivery

Information exchange

Passive learning

Active/exploratory/inquiry-based learning

Factual, knowledge-based learning

Critical thinking and informed decision-making

Reactive response

Proactive/planned action

Isolated, artificial context

Authentic, real-world context

ISTE (2006) states that learning environments should prepare students to:

  • Communicate using a variety of media and formats

  • Access and exchange information in a variety of ways

  • Compile, organize, analyze, and synthesize information

  • Draw conclusions and make generalizations based on information gathered

  • Know content and be able to locate additional information as needed

  • Become self-directed learners

  • Collaborate and cooperate in team efforts

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 create real-world, context-rich environments in which learning is relevant and should focus on concrete approaches to solving real-world problems. They should also serve as coaches and mentors as students solve these problems. Additionally, they will want to stress conceptual interrelatedness and provide tools and environments that help learners interpret the multiple perspectives of the world. Scaffolding is also beneficial for students as they seek to control and mediate their own learning

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 10, Issue 1, 2007
ISSN 1097-9778
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