Teaching With Google Earth: Navigating History, Culture and Place

Google Earth is an essential tool for navigation. In addition to helping people get from point A to point B, it offers a wealth of learning opportunities for the classroom. Whether exploring foreign lands and languages or learning more about latitude, longitude and even geometry, Google Earth is an indispensable tool for connecting students to the world around them.

Navigating Geography and Place

First and foremost, Google Earth is a geography tool. This makes it an excellent starting point for teaching students how to use a map and understand directions. Teacher Erin Flanagan shows how a scavenger hunt can teach students how to navigate Google Earth and how to use latitude and longitude. 

This activity has students use the app to find certain locations on Google Maps and describe what they see. In addition to learning about how to use Google Maps, students have fun exploring different places and learning about the role of directions in navigation.

Scavenger hunts can be designed to lead students to notable places for an added history lesson. According to Holly Mitchell at Teach Starter, Google Earth provides an opportunity for students to virtually visit a number of landmarks across the globe.

“Get them to write down the coordinates or even get them to plan out a virtual tour of their chosen landmark. They can also write out some interesting facts about this landmark and present their findings to the class,” she explains.

A fascinating resource is the David Rumsey map collection. Hundreds of maps from an archive of 150,000 have been selected as Google Earth layers. This provides an opportunity for students to see what cities, coastlines, rivers and streets looked like at various periods of time.

A number of the earliest maps are distorted in scale, which offers insight into primitive concepts of space and surroundings. These maps can be used to accompany both local and global geography lessons, and combine well with lessons in cartography, history and sociology, among others.

teaching with Google Earth

Exploring History and Social Studies

Google Earth can be used to teach students about the history of people and places. For example, the overlay tool can be used to combine landmark searches with history lessons. 

Overlays are aerial photographs, engravings, drawings or other historical images that can be virtually placed over a modern map to provide a greater sense of place, says history teacher and writer Russel Tarr. Showing a city before a fire or bombing, for example, can help students understand the magnitude of a certain event.

“These pictures can be physically appear ‘laid’ over a 3D model of the landscape and then rotated and tilted as desired, which is fantastic for sites where terrain made a difference, such as the First World War battlefields at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele,” Tarr adds.

Google Earth Voyager is designed to lead students through interactive maps that illustrate the paths of world explorers. Some of the content on Google Earth Voyager is organized into stories narrated by PBS, explains digital learning coach Tom Mullaney. From the Vikings to Lewis and Clark, these stories include video clips, primary source visuals and 360 degree street views to illustrate how these places look today.

National Geographic also offers Voyager stories, most of which mesh environmentalism with geography and society. For example, they have a Voyager story titled “Protecting the Okavango River Basin,” which details conservation efforts in a fragile African environment. “With text, overlays, video, and NatGeo’s reliably gorgeous photos, it all adds up to an unusually absorbing, rich experience and a tantalizing glimpse of things to come,” explains Big Think writer Robby Berman.

Google Earth also offers its own lesson plans for using the tool, which can be a great place to start if you’re new to digital mapping in the classroom.

Aerial Views and the Arts

Google Earth can also be harnessed for enriching lessons in the arts.Teachers can use a popular tool called Google Lit Trips to teach students about places that are significant either in a story or in an author’s life, says Richard Byrne, founder of Free Technology for Teachers.

Literature tours are layered over Google earth and contain discussion starters, real-world references, images, videos and information that support the reading material. The goal of these trips is to provide “engaging and relevant literary experiences for students,” according to Google Lit Trips.

Students can also explore cities with notable architecture using Google Earth, suggests John Sowash at Chrmbook.com. After these places are located, they can serve as creative inspiration for paintings and art projects, especially when rooted in a theme about a specific person or place. Google Arts and Culture also offers insight into art from specific geographic regions, which helps students explore and learn more about paintings, sculptures and famous buildings.

“By using Google’s My Maps tools or the desktop version of Google Earth, students can map the locations of where a piece of local art is housed, where it was created, and the places that inspired the artist,” adds Byrne

These placemarks can include the artist’s photo, a picture of the artist or an informational video. Students can also create their own map and include texts and video to share more information about the art or the artist. 

teaching with Google Earth

Mapping With Math

Math might not be on your list when teaching with Google Earth, but it should be. Google Earth can be used to measure distances between destinations or explore different time zones, for example. Real World Math is a teaching resource specifically created to help teachers harness the power of Google Earth to teach real-world applications of math. If you’re looking to encourage higher order thinking skills like analysis, creativity and synthesis, Real World Math has an excellent selection of lesson plans.

“This is a modern approach to mathematics that is student-centered and task-oriented; it embraces active learning, constructivism, and project-based activities, while remaining true to the standards,” says the site’s homepage.

One example of an engaging math lesson is explained by educator Neil Jarrett, founder of EdTech4Beginners. He had students use Google to measure distances, calculate areas and plan routes using the ruler icon in the My Maps feature. Then, Jarett asked students to make calculations based on what they’d planned.

“I used this feature in a maths lesson in which the children had to measure and then find the sum of different journeys. Following this, they had to draw polygons around different places and then find the total sum of the areas.”

This helps students create real-world connections between the earth and the equations they typically conduct in the classroom or as homework assignments.

Researching and Applying Data

One of the greatest benefits of Google Earth is that it makes a wealth of data available for public use. For example, students of geoscience can access updated maps based on data from weather, water and temperature reports, says the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. Similarly, Google Earth can be used to monitor ship traffic, map volcanoes, assess natural hazards and compare atmospheric chemistry models with observational data.

It can also be used to help students chart, map and interpret the impacts of climate change. UC San Diego external affiliate Ran Goldblatt, now chief scientist at New Light Technologies, taught students how to harness satellite imagery and geospatial data to learn about the world. They also learned about remote sensing, geospatial workflows and data visualization. While this course is for college students, middle and high school students can still learn how to interpret Google Earth data and turn it into meaningful information.

Education writer and consultant Sandy Scragg says such geospatial research and mapping can be enhanced by Google Earth Pro. “With the Pro version, you and your students can do some pretty cool things like create your own custom tours, discover detailed demographic data, view 360-degree interactive photos, measure distance and elevation, and explore the historical maps layer.”

This also provides access into historic local imagery that can date back to the early 1900’s, depending on your location. Google Earth Library is also accessible with the pro version. This allows your class access to more layers and overlays, deepening research and insights into a specific time or place.

Images by: primagefactory/©123RF.com, eberhard grossgasteiger, trashhand

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