GPS in the classroomGIS (Geographic Information System) can capture and store information, and allows the display of different types of information in one map. GIS is the technology behind Google Maps.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a navigation system that uses satellites to look at location, weather, traffic and more.

In May 2014, the White House announced through its ConnectEd initiative that ArcGIS Online mapping software, one of the most popular, would be available free to K-12 schools. Through this program you can see how teachers in Virginia are using crowdsource data to learn about birds and environmental connections, how Oklahoma students are measuring and mapping a community walking path, and how students in New Hampshire are measuring the depth of a local lake to calculate volume and look at different conditions and their impact on the watershed.

Why use GIS in the classroom?

A similarly titled article from North Carolina State University’s “GISined” website relates that one teacher had students use GIS to map locations Mark Twain visited and there are many interdisciplinary uses for GIS. Other suggestions include:

  • Social studies – country demographics, historical events
  • Science – explore as earthquakes and volcano locations; explore habits of animals and impact of humans
  • Business and marketing – business location analysis; create travel routes for a business that will be delivering goods in a town or city
  • Language arts – explore locations of a book’s plot; map the travel logs/journals of a specific author
  • Mathematics – explore mathematical functions of demographic data (i.e. the differences between the number of males and females of cities, proportions of different ethnicities in major U.S. cities)
  • Health and physical education – explore locations and spread of diseases and illnesses

At a webpage called Exploring STEM and GIS, sponsored by the global sustainability company esri, students can explore interactive maps showing cell phone usage, carbon dioxide emission, demographic and ocean data. You can incorporate some GIS basics in your classroom using esri’s ArcGIS Online Five by Five, a downloadable lesson plan for five activities you can do in five minutes each.

Consider introducing your students to the game of Geocaching, “a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices,” found at Participants use GPS coordinates to locate hidden containers. Basic software is free for your mobile device. A more in-depth activity is The Global Mapping Experiment from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (class time about 40 minutes), and the center also has some lessons for using GPS in the classroom.

GIS/GPS in geography

ESRI is one of the most well-known names in GIS software. At its GIS for Schools webpage, ESRI provides tools to help students answer questions such as:

  • Where’s the closest store?
  • Where does your water come from?
  • What parts of your community would you change?
  • In what ways are the actions of people around you connected to the lives of others around the planet?

A geography instructor from the United Kingdom who writes a blog called “DigGeog” has created a collaborative SlideShare of innovative ideas titled “Neogeography in the Classroom: Tips for using GIS, GPS, virtual globes and web based maps.” It includes activities that are relevant for the United States:

  1. Choose a site for a wind farm using Google Earth.
  2. Collate field work data in Google Charts.
  3. Shade in a world map (using Map Maker).
  4. Locate a new building in San Francisco (using Google Earth overlays).
  5. Create circles in Google Earth (using KML Circle Generator).
  6. Create dual maps for your website or lesson. (Dual maps combine Google Maps, Google Street View and Microsoft Bing Maps into one embeddable control.)
  7. Use the historical time slider in Google Earth, which allows you to look at aerial views of specific locations over time. Suggestions are Beijing National Stadium and McCarran International airport (goes back as far as 1950).
  8. Use the Google Earth flight simulator.
  9. Play a game of GeoDarts (pick “Countries and Capitals” or “USA State Trivia” or create your own game).
  10. Use EveryTrail with field trips. You can write guides and review trails, map a trip route with your phone, add trip photos to your map, share via social media. or follow other trips.

GIS/GPS for teaching about engineering’s “Curriculum for K-12” includes a lesson called “What is GIS?” It teaches students how to create a “magic map.” The activity posits these questions:

  • If you were dropped you off in (name a city that is far from students' own community), given a driver's license and a car, and the challenge of getting back home on your own, could you do it?
  • How would you do it? (Pick a student or two to answer the hypothetical challenge. Expect students to give various answers, but the main way that a person would do this would be by using a map.)
  • Have you ever used a map before? Have you helped someone navigate roads while driving?
  • Do you know how to read a map?

The lesson is based on the real time map in Harry Potter that shows where every character is at any time in Hogwarts and on satellite tracking for Google Maps as well as real time tracking via cell phone. This lesson includes background and concepts for teachers, lots of activities, vocabulary and definitions, and a concluding activity. There are also downloadable quizzes, maps, and links to multimedia support.

GIS/GPS in mathematics

Esri provides numerous math lessons from the ArcLessons library at that encompass math strategies, including, “Measuring the circumference of the earth with GPS;” Geocaching: quest for the Boulder missing map;” “Travel time to major cities;” “Analyzing water use with GIS;” “Investigating extreme temperatures in the USA;” and “Crops of the world: examining 5 crops using GIS”.


ArcLessons is a searchable database of GIS lessons available from esri. A recent search for anything on primary, middle school or secondary lessons on business-economics turned up a lesson on an “airplane incident investigation.” Searching for “maps” presents a 15-minute storymap lesson. Use the “browse” feature to explore other topics. There’s even a lesson called “Where Does Thanksgiving Dinner Come From?” on the blog. You can find some interesting case studies of best practices showing how GIS is being used in education, including for community service, geo-mentoring, and analyzing youth football programs.

Patricia Bruder, president of Linchpin Solutions LLC, consults for the Educational Information and Resource Center (EIRC) located at the South Jersey Tech Park at Rowan University, Mullica Hill. EIRC is a public agency specializing in education-related programs and services for teachers, parents, schools, communities, and non-profit organizations throughout New Jersey. Learn more about EIRC at or call 856-582-7000. Contact Patricia Bruder at