September is a fantastic time of the year to try geocaching. The weather in Saskatchewan isn’t too hot or too cold. Autumn’s birth is on the horizon and by the third week we begin to see the leaves changing colour. The setting is almost perfect for an outdoor classroom. Fortunately for me, I have been assigned to sub in grade 6/7 room for the last couple weeks. Prior to my arrival, the class had spent time refreshing their mapping skills and discussing location. Immediately, I saw this as excellent opportunity to experiment with GPS and geocaching to reinforce learning about direction, location and coordinates. Having never owned a Global Position System (GPS) unit, I had only a basic idea of how they worked but recognized the potential for learning.
Before we began to use the units outdoors, I knew we had to spend time discussing coordinates and distance until we all had a firm grasp on the concepts. Then we talked about how GPS units use 3 of 24 satellites circling the earth to triangulate our position and are then able to send exact coordinates of our location to the GPS unit. To complete the overview we had a short study of the units interface. This helped to better understand the 5 different buttons, the 5 different screens and become aware of the vocabulary involved with marking or finding the coordinates of a location.
We used the GPS units in our outdoor classroom three times.
Our first outdoor experience took place on a Wednesday, in the school yard, where I had marked the coordinates of landmarks (soccer goalpost, the slide, a lightpole). I gave the coordinates of the landmarks to the students, who in turn input the digits into the GPS units. The students were then asked to find which locations the coordinates were for. Each student found each of the locations, but mostly because they followed those walking in front of them.
Back in the classroom we debriefed. I fired up the projector and loaded Google Maps. On the satellite view of the maps we found Sunningdale School in Moose Jaw. I typed in the first coordinate for the goalpost and the students watch as the Google marker landed there. I then asked “which direction the marker would go if the western coordinate was increased?” and “what if the Northern coordinate decreased?” and so on. We reinforced the concept of longitude and latitude.
The following Friday, we embarked on our second outdoor adventure. Pairs of students were asked to mark 5 coordinates/landmarks for another pair. Once the locations were marked in the GPS unit, the students swapped units and went exploring to find the unknown destinations. At this point I could hear students working together and making guesses as to which landmark the coordinates would take them to. They were all running, trying to find the best landmark and appeared extremely involved in the activity.
Upon returning to the classroom we discussed and watched a short introductory video on the growing outdoor sport of Geocaching. We talked about guidelines and the ethics of the sport. About different types of caches and the types of “treasures” swapped when a cache is found. Then, to reinforce guidelines for geocaching, we recited the GeoCreed, (shared with me by another Grade 6 teacher in Victoria, BC, named Jan Smith).
On Monday morning one of the Gr.6 students appeared in the doorway before the bell. He told me of his Saturday adventure Geocaching. He had signed up an account on geocaching.com, where he found numerous listings of geocaches. Each listing shows a map of the approximate area in which the cache is located and gives a hint as to the location. Without a GPS unit, this student printed the map, hopped on his bike and went out geocaching. He came in early that Monday to explain how and where he found his first THREE geocaches. He went on to explain that after he found the caches, he logged back into geocaching.com and posted to the discussion board for each cache to show he had been there and note what he swapped. He was beaming with pride. The class was enthralled with this boy’s story and could not wait to find their own cache.
The next morning we set off to find the cache that I had hid the night before. After hiding the cache in a park near the school, I hid 9 clues with coordinates for the next stops along the route. The class worked together to find each of the clues in sequence and utilized their mapping skills to find the shortest route to the next destination. The students learned that even though the GPS points the way to the coordinate’s location, sometimes houses would get in the way and they couldn’t go the way of the crow. Upon finding each clue the students intensity grew, they reached a point where they knew the direction just from me reading the coordinates. By the last few clues they could have gone on without the device. They found the cache and thoroughly enjoyed the lollypops and pride that came with completing this challenging task.
There have been talks of continuing this outdoor pursuit in collaboration with a class from a nearby school if time allows. We may plant a cache of items for them and email instructions for finding it. Then in turn they would take the container, swap items and plant the cache for us. Following the activity, students from each class would correspond about their adventures to find the caches, explain to each other why they left and took the items they did. Ultimately, the students would benefit from interacting and building community with another group of students engaged in a fun learning experience.