Global Positioning Systems
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are handheld devices that use satellite signals to provide exact location. Some come with screens large enough to display a map. Many newer GPS devices can be combined with software to plot the user's location directly onto a map.
These tools can be used in learning projects to improve geographic and spatial understanding, as well as provide direct experience with latitude and longitude.
Fifth-graders revisit the world of Lewis and Clark using global positioning systems
Cal Washburn, fifth-grade teacher at a rural elementary school, has a passion for history, but knows the quickest way to lose students' interest in the topic is to open the textbook. With the advent of new technologies and digital literacies, Washburn has adopted a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to an instructional unit on exploration.
Washburn attended a summer institute on how to use primary source materials to make history real and relevant. When he found an exhibit of Lewis and Clark's journey at the Library of Congress Web site, he decided to incorporate the primary sources he found there into the curriculum. He planned to ask his students to generate hypotheses about the artifacts they would find.
During the first phase of instruction, students used such Web site resources as authentic maps, diary entries, and history texts to build their understanding of the Lewis and Clark trip. But Washburn also wanted the students to experience the excitement of real discovery, so he planned a hands-on learning experience called "geo-caching."
An avid reader of Native American history and archaeology, Washburn learned how archaeologists recorded the location of artifacts using their geographic coordinates. In a leap of inspiration, Washburn imagined he could reverse the process, superimposing a map over the school grounds, and then placing "artifacts" in relative positions to important landmarks described by Lewis and Clark.
Washburn modeled how to make an inference, develop a hypothesis, and determine what evidence was needed to confirm or refute the hypothesis. He used this set of questions as a framework:
After students tested their hypotheses through research and reached conclusions about the artifacts in the caches, Washburn revealed the significance of the assorted objects. Only a few students' conclusions were entirely correct, but Washburn recognized those that modeled logical connections between hypotheses, steps toward testing them, and supported conclusions.
Geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning satellite (GPS) devices offer tools to help students think spatially and practice spatial problem solving (Bednarz, 1999). Before he introduced the GPS receivers, he had students study historical means of mapping and navigation. As he introduced the devices, he helped students draw parallels between old technologies (such as sextant and compass) and new. Washburn reserved a set of six GPS receivers from the regional technology consortium library. He found a series of introductory lessons on the Internet, and students began to practice using the devices.
He then superimposed a map of the historic region over the school grounds. He used a GPS receiver to plot geographic coordinates for the relative locations of Fort Mandan, the headwaters of the Great Falls in the Rockies, and other significant historical sites. He recorded the coordinates, and stashed relevant "artifacts" in each place. Cached items were relevant to their location, and students would have to theorize about their occurrence in the cache as well as their function, and then use the appropriate reference materials to make sense of their finds.
With historical maps, geographic coordinates, and GPS devices, students set to work on their own mini-Corps of Discovery. Students followed coordinates on the superimposed map and found the artifacts that needed deciphering. They began locating and documenting these "history caches" with digital photographs and detailed notes.
Using GPS devices helped students understand and use the geographic (earth-mapping) coordinate system. The role of GIS as a scientific visualization technique supported their learning process. Their processes also mirrored Corps of Discovery use of sextant, compass, and other navigational tools. Students solved many of the puzzles and looked forward to more opportunities to apply their reasoning as "history detectives."
GPS devices served the function of helping students find the caches, and led into a number of geography lessons that suddenly had new relevance. Students had prior experience on which to draw to make connections stronger. Latitude and longitude were easier to understand when students could see coordinates change incrementally as they walked from place to place. With their GPS devices students deepened their understanding about science, geography, and how technology tools are used to generate and test hypotheses in the real world.