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Taking Student Learning Out of This World:
Integrating Google Earth in the Elementary Classroom

Geraldine C. Jenny
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania

     The purpose of this article is to discuss the usefulness of Google Earth as an educational tool in the elementary classroom curriculum. Google Earth opens up potential for students in classrooms around the globe with its bird’s eye view of the world and provides students with a window to our planet via computer screens. Utilizing cutting-edge technology, it interfaces with the Internet and allows students to zoom into any location on Earth (Siegle, 2007, 24). Google Earth is a free interactive geographic browser and software tool that can enhance student learning in diverse content areas via aerial photographs and a 3D globe/map/satellite image program that provides high quality views of the Earth. It can be viewed by hovering over features and locations students pre-select or by exploring locations that catch their interest. They can also swoop forward and tilt images to make more detailed observations of specific features (Stahley, 2006). Students may begin with teacher-directed Google Earth searches and then gradually progress to open-ended self-initiated exploration.

     The presence of computers in home and educational settings has increased exponentially over the past 20 years. Schools have advanced beyond the first level of adapting technology, but technology-rich curricular activities are still lacking on a broader scale (Cates et al.  2003, 155). Classroom utilization of geographic information systems (GIS) has not been very common and this underscores a lack of technology-rich curriculum activities (Bowman et al. 2005; Baker 2005; Donaldson, 2000; Kerski, 2000). Google Earth combines the power of a Google Search with rich multimedia content that uses satellite imagery, maps, terrain and 3D buildings to put the world’s geographic information at student fingertips and is a technological tool that can also help strengthen curriculum deficits.

     Google Earth is proving to be a driving force in educational technology.  As an online tool, it allows students to take virtual adventures to far flung locations around the globe, under the sea and into outer space (Lamb and Johnson, 2010, 81). The decrease in hardware and software costs, data availability, user-friendly interfaces and Internet proliferation has enhanced our global interconnectedness. Emergence of virtual global visualization could be one of the most important technological tools of our lifetimes (Schultz, et al. 2008, 34).  Users who are digital natives learn by receiving information quickly and generally prefer graphics over text. They are multi-taskers who are networked, learn through random access and are used to instant gratification (Sparrow, 2010).

Google Earth

     Google Earth is an exciting and powerful mechanism to reinforce the connection people have with space and place. Moreover it removes some obstacles in spatial thinking for students in the classroom.  Spacial thinking includes the ability to mentally rotate objects, images or the mental orientation of self and aids students in imagining and gaining different perspectives of phenomena in three dimensions (Martinez et al.  2009, 19).

     The four E’s of the learning life cycle model (Cates et al. 2003, 155) are supported by Google Earth. Students engage in a lesson, explore the earth, explain what they identify and evaluate learning implications. Google Earth facilitates earth exploration in an interactive dynamic mode, as they learn to understand the spatial context of their locale in a meaningful manner.

     The National Science Education Standards recommend the use of computers for the “collection, summary and display of evidence …Students should be able to access, gather, store and retrieve data. Technology provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable.”  (NRC, 1996) Through the technology of Google Earth, satellites, GPS and remotely sensed images are displayed.  The use of online resources has helped improve student comprehension of major skills and concepts as learners gain confidence in geographic knowledge (Solem  & Gersmehl , 2005).  Visual image recall is also improved over the use of plain text (Wager, 2005). A variety of Internet-based resources can be integrated in the learning environment that allows students greater knowledge acquisition in areas of particular interest.

     Technology offers vast potential to extend instructional capabilities. Students acquire and apply technological skills early in multiple, diverse ways.  Today’s students have a different manner of learning and applying technology due to the fact that video and images now are primary tools utilized as a means of information gathering in classrooms. Additionally, Google Earth serves as an entertainment venue as the visual and emotional images communicate and motivate students in their learning. Another benefit is that students are not required to be at school for its use. It is free and can be installed by any user.

Teachers can add relevance and make literature come alive through student visualization of the settings of books. Educators may add maps, pictures, information, websites or Youtube videos. They can also add placemarks to pose questions and set the stage for rich classroom dialogue (Sparrow, 2010). Google Earth motivates students to take mapping skills to a new level of mastery. Aerial and satellite images combine to create images and details of the terrain, geographic locations, cities and  town, historical landmarks or book settings (Lindroth, 2006, 2).

Google Earth In the Classroom

     As students read a book, they may look for significant locations or information to add to their maps. In a story in which an act of nature plays a part, students may explore different types of weather conditions or use Google Earth to peer into the eye of a hurricane. Older students may add annotated links to researched sources thus building their information-literacy skills. Educators are generating new conversations regarding best technological practices for literature studies (Boss, 2010, 2).

     Educators should look for meaningful ways to connect Google Earth with books, videos and other resources rather than just in isolation. Google Earth can be used effectively in standards-based, inquiry-driven lessons for students to investigate processes and places in a 3D visualization environment (Schultz, et al. 2008). Students’ encounters with book characters can be enriched and made more vital and relevant through the use of Google Earth. Children’s literature takes them to different places, sparks their imaginations and makes it possible for students to experience the world in new ways.  Google Earth can transport readers around the globe to more closely visualize settings in their favorite books as they visit sites and discover more about places where book characters reside and travel.  There are numerous examples of books with references to places of note and historical sites. Virtual tours heighten book enjoyment and enable readers to better understand a story by visualizing the journeys of the characters in the stories. Reading experiences used in conjunction with Google Earth encourage critical thinking skills in literacy such as interpreting, analyzing, comparing, contrasting and explaining (Castek &  Mangelson, 2008, 40).

     California educator Jerome Burg created the site “Google Lit Trips” to share his fresh approach for teaching literature at his high school.  Each trip is an interactive multimedia experience created with Google Earth and stored as a KMZ file. Teachers and students are now designing their own literary trips to share with the online community (Boss, 2010, 1).  Google Lit Trips are in an attractive website that has a user interface built with iweb, author portraits and passport stamps as graphic elements which includes downloading KMZ files to supplement specific literature. Key locations are color-coded with placemarks to relate to specific locations in a story’s timeline. Exploring placemarks involves active engagement.  When students read a text they use the files to go online and track story characters as they “fly” from one location to the next.  Google Lit Trips propel Google Earth as a powerful tool for literature studies. They are a resource that combine a new technology with a time-tested instructional  approach. The interactive web-based application enables students to literally explore the globe using satellite imagery, maps, terrain and other 3D images. There are custom designed files so students travel along with a literary character using Google Earth to explore story key locales (Boss & Krauss, 2007, 12).  The objective is to help students gain a deeper understanding of the books they are reading. An educator can thus make story information more visible as well as easier to discuss as students immerse themselves in the story environment.

     In planning classroom Google Lit trips, an educator must first determine the topic, where to go on the Google Lit trip, the key learning outcomes and how much student collaboration is important in the lesson.  Students can virtually fly from one story locale to another and zoom in on setting details. They travel on and make more discoveries from heights they have never experienced before. Students learn from journeying next to literary characters, gathering information and making connections during their escapades.  Google Lit Trips allow teachers to extend the scope of proven instructional strategies.  Visual literacy taps into all the senses and puts students at the center rather than at the sidelines of a story.  They may travel vicariously through the story characters. Traditionally, teachers may have used hand-outs for students to research certain locations or events to better understand a story. With Google Earth, students can actively engage in literature by zooming into a landscape and getting closer to character experiences. New dialogue and powerful visual learning are also heightened by 3D images as the imagery and facilitated dialogue are elevated. The centerpiece of a Google Lit Trip is marking story locations.  Of course if the characters in a story do not travel around, there is little potential value in creating a Lit Trip.

     Literature may encourage students to connect books and their settings to issues and locations in their own lives. Google Earth features help students to create their own meanings. An upper grade teacher might introduce the Lit trip approach with a KMZ file and then have students create their own KMZ file and use placemark features of Google Earth to customize their learning experiences. Students may also use numbered placemarks to highlight locations in a story timeline. Visual information creates new opportunities for dialogue regarding why certain settings are key to a story.  Technology plays a major role in supporting student learning as they actively investigate literature and it delivers essential learning functions in a literary project. Making story elements visible and discussable fosters collaboration even as technological tools change (Boss & Krauss, 2007, 17).  Teachers all over the world are doing amazing things to inspire their students using technology. The Google Lit Trip site has an impressive collection of podcasts, screencasts, conference links and video interviews from educators internationally. There is growing evidence that teaching with dynamic images from software and the web can make the teaching of children’s literature more meaningful as well as more powerful.

     Google Earth may be used to demonstrate visual images to mark locations and help students visualize certain aspects of a story. It can also provide supplemental information on historical, biographical  or geographical references in a story and enhance cultural connections and understandings. Google Earth aids in illuminating spots where an author may provide material for thought provoking questions to generate lively class discussions.

     Geography is a unifying discipline that strengthens Google Earth, supports spatial thinking and develops critical analytical skills in other subject areas. The five basic themes of geography – location, place, relationships with place, movement and regions (Natoli et al. 1984) establish the foundation for coherent children’s literature education. GIS can be used in classrooms to help make spatial information and geography more relevant to teachers and students at all levels.  Google Earth can help students to meet challenges of various standards based curricula by enabling them to understand information in spatial and geographic contexts (Patterson, 2007, 146).  Students imagine different vantage points by gaining a ground view and changing that orientation to a bird’s eye view using geospatial tools (Martinez et al. 2009, 18).

     There is also a variety of other data for the Google Earth community’s use.  There is a “Maps Mania” blog which has data sets for Google Maps and Google Earth as well as discussions about Google spatial tool utilization. Atlases have long been used to visually represent our world, but the value of classroom Atlases is more limited in supplementing vibrant interactive curriculum (Thomas et al. 1998, 202). Through the traditional use of globes, it is difficult for students to learn to get a sense of their relative place in the world. Google Earth enriches global awareness, but educators should not just play armchair tourists, they should help students to fully explore all this dynamic program has to offer (Adam and Mowers, 2007, 41). Teachers can garner other classroom resources such as world and state maps as well as atlases to aid upper grade students in selecting story locations to view. This facilitates map reading skills and the comparison of landscape regions so students can transfer their thinking successfully to navigate those same locations using Google Earth.  Readers are anxious for the realism that Google Earth brings to the classroom.

     Students may answer questions through scientific investigations using Google Earth to gather, analyze and interpret data critically and logically. Google Earth provides technology resources for solving problems and thinking logically (Patterson, 149). The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, 2000) includes requirements for measurement, data analysis, probability, reasoning and proof, communication, connections and representation skills.  There is a Measure tool to chart distances for Math or Social Studies graphs. Lessons can be developed to introduce these concepts to students.  Written explanations of observations help develop literacy in Mathematics while the use of dynamic images from software and the web make Math  lessons more effective, efficient and fun (Butler, 2008, 28).

     However, a significant barrier for educators to implementing GIS is lack of time for learning and applying the software and preparing materials for supporting lessons. Students also need time to learn the tools and incorporate them in learning (Meyer et al.  1999). Time for learning GIS applications has been emphasized as a factor in GIS and related technology implementation in K-12 classrooms (Bednarz  &  Bednarz, 2004, 24).

     Geovisualization technology has produced a plethora of easily accessible information, but can pose challenges regarding quality and authority of data (Lamb and Johnson, 2010, 81). Appropriate hardware access has served as a barrier to implementing GIS applications (Meyer et  al. 1999). Additional impediments to GIS implementation have been cited as insufficient resources, incompatible computer and network systems, school district security demands and subject discipline separation  (Baker, 2005, 44).

     States have been increasing the pressure on educators to use GIS despite the fact that sometimes there are inadequate resources, support or lessons. There is a gulf between the demand and the ability to implement technology which is widening as various standards for which educators are being held accountable increases. State Education Departments and academic discipline standards are becoming increasingly important.  In sum, It is a freeware tool, but the use of Google Earth requires time, motivation, skills and capabilities.

     Integrating Google Earth within the elementary curriculum allows teachers to design classroom activities that are both highly creative and deepen understanding for their students. Activities may be generated that spur higher order thinking questions and more analytical thinking. The increasing necessity and costs of technology in schools as well as tight school budgets make free software options an attractive alternative as educators aim to deliver the latest technology into student hands. Google Earth also allows students to explore their own creativity. With the use of Google Earth, exciting learning experiences that motivate students, incorporate technology and enhance spatial thinking skills are maximized. Students imagine different vantage points by gaining a ground view and changing that orientation to a bird’s eye view using geospatial tools (Martinez et al. 2009, 18). Google Earth’s built-in layers provide many learning opportunities.  Teachers at all grade levels and in diverse academic areas can use Google Earth to enhance student learning in innumerable, engaging ways.

Google Earth in the Classroom: Ways to Study a Country


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