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Education Trends

Say Yes to GPS: Bring Latitude and Longitude to Life

December 6, 2006

In several of Edutopia's video segments, students and teachers are seen using global-positioning-system (GPS) technology to accurately identify spots on the planet -- not just to locate a city or a town but to pinpoint a bend in a stream, or the precise location of an animal or a plant or a structure.Just like the real scientists and historians they are becoming, they know they need to be accurate.

Say Yes to GPS: Bring Latitude and Longitude to Life

Accurate observations need to be complete with comments, images, date, time, and location. And to be scientifically accurate these locations need to be far more detailed than the name of the town, stream, pond, or property owner. And the only tool that will do it right is a GPS receiver.

So, if your students are going to actively participate in this global community, to compete in the global marketplace, they need to know where they are in addition to where they are going and what is going on. Today, to really know where you are, a GPS receiver is the tool to start with. This tool will do far more than simply tell you your latitude and longitude, so let's take a look at some of the things you and your students will be able to do.

Make Latitude and Longitude a Kinesthetic Activity

By holding the GPS receiver in your hand and walking, you will be able to see your latitude and longitude change. Ask students to hold the device and walk in a direction so that the latitude remains constant while the latitude increases, and then challenge them to figure out what direction they are walking in. (In the United States, they would be heading west.) Then ask them what direction they would be going if longitude remained constant and latitude decreased? (South.) By making these two abstract concepts almost tangible, you will find more and more students gaining a solid control over the concept of latitude and longitude.

"A GPS in Every School" Is More Than Political Rhetoric

"Why in every school?" you may well ask. First of all, with a GPS receiver in your school, you will not only be able to add your latitude and longitude to your school-newsletter masthead, it will also be ready to be taken along whenever any class goes on a field trip. It will be used to collect the latitude and longitude of the site visited, and, when the class returns and creates a bulletin board or makes a presentation that tells the story of the trip, the latitude and longitude of where they went can be highlighted. In this way, you will foster a culture of geographical literacy throughout the school, rather than simply teaching latitude and longitude to a specific grade level.

Teachers who travel during a spring or summer break might borrow the GPS and bring back not only great digital images of their adventures but also the latitude and longitude of where they were, enabling them to tell a richer story of their adventures.

Send the GPS Home with the Kids

Today's GPS receivers are relatively simple to operate, menu driven, and lack the external antenna that many of the earlier models carried. Because of this you should not worry about letting the kids get their hands on it. One idea is to send the GPS home with a child each evening, asking them to come back with the latitude and longitude of where they live. By collecting these numbers you will be able to create geography challenges that are based in the real world of the children's own neighborhoods.

Who's in Charge?

You can look up any city or town in the world and find a latitude and longitude listed for it. Here is an interesting and fairly simple way for your class to become introduced to the GPS receiver. Because your students will now understand that every spot on the face of the Earth has a unique latitude and longitude, you can now set out to see where the "official" latitude and longitude actually are.

This Is a Growing Field -- Become GPS Experts

The use of GPS is rapidly expanding -- and everyone from community-planning offices to public school transportation departments and fire and police departments are making use of this remarkable tool. Yes, everyone is using them, but do they really understand how they work their magic?

How about deciding that you and your students are going to become local experts on these devices, developing a heightened level of knowledge not only about how they work but also how to use this technical marvel in innovative ways? A great place to start is the article "How GPS Receivers Work." Not only will you be modeling the importance of understanding how the technologies that fill our lives actually function, you will also be providing an opportunity for your students to support their communities as they work to inform folks about the power of this tool.

Say Yes to GPS: Bring Latitude and Longitude to Life

NatureMapping: Not Just for Horny Toads

Leapin' Lizards, the GLEF video segment that highlights the nature-mapping project around horny toads in Washington state is one of the strongest examples of effective integration of GPS and geographic-information systems (GIS) into curriculum developed to date. Start thinking about the wildlife found in your area and determine whether their habitats may have changed since the guidebooks were written. This is definitely a burgeoning topic, so either seek out local wildlife experts to get started on a project of your own, or keep your eyes peeled for the arrival of calls for participation in similar activities. And the concept need not be limited to wildlife: Plants, as well as such human-made structures as grange halls and old cellar holes are all candidates for data collection and analysis in this model.

What About Geocaching?

You may have already read or heard about geocaching, which has been catching on in a big way around the United States and beyond. To start, place a notebook, a pencil, and some small toy or trinket inside a waterproof plastic box. Cache, or hide, it somewhere in your community. Then, using your GPS receiver, note the site's latitude and longitude and share this information with others either via a Web site or in person. Others set out to find the cache, and when they do, they leave a note in the notebook, swap one item for the one in the box, and replace the cache in its secret location so that others can experience the thrill of discovery.

Imagine the excitement of searching for a geocache in your schoolyard. Give it a try. To learn more, head to, where you can connect with a world of people passionate about using GPS technology and welcome your involvement.

The 49-Mile Rule

No point on Earth is more than 49 miles from the confluence of a line of longitude and a line of latitude. That fact has given rise to the Degree Confluence Project, an effort to visit all possible points on Earth where a degree of latitude and a degree of longitude cross and document these visits. This is how the effort is described on the project Web site: "The project is an organized sampling of the world . . . . We've discounted confluences in the oceans and some near the poles, but there are still 12,247 to be found. You're invited to help by photographing any one of these places. Read the Information pages, and contact us if you have questions." With an invitation like that, who could resist? This could be a great way to involve the community as you ferret out the points of confluence that surround your school.

I bet you do great things with GPS receivers. Please comment back to this post and share the great ideas you, your students, and your colleagues have come up with. I look forward to hearing from you.

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