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Using Google Earth in the Classroom

Online Teaching and Learning Teaching with Technology

Using Google Earth in the Classroom

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Google Earth is a powerful tool for linking curriculum to the real world. It can add a sense of place to historical events, and by creating customized maps, teachers and students can add pins to locations, providing additional information in the form of text, audio, video, and links to other sites.

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Google Earth is a powerful tool for linking curriculum to the real world. It can add a sense of place to historical events, and by creating customized maps, teachers and students can add pins to locations, providing additional information in the form of text, audio, video, and links to other sites.

When teaching My Brother Sam Is Dead, an historical novel about the American Revolution, I used Google Earth to plot out the chapters and significant events in the novel. I placed pins (also called “placemarks”) on the globe to mark locations in the book’s setting and historic sites, and I drew lines between places to indicate routes the characters take, such as the trip from Redding to Verplank’s Point, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and places where the British and Patriot soldiers marched for the Battles of Lexington and Concord (Figure 1).

Click this link to see a sample of the project My Brother Sam Is Dead. Google Earth will launch in your browser. Click on the word "Present" (in blue) near the top of the left sidebar. Then use the table of contents in the lower left to advance through the sample project.

Google Earth map of locations and character routes from the novel My Brother Sam Is Dead

Figure 1. Google Earth display of locations and routes from My Brother Sam Is Dead

Each pin contained a pop-up window that included Google Earth’s 3-D imagery of that particular place, enabling students to visualize the novel’s setting in a concrete way. The window also contained a clickable carousel of related images and videos, a brief summary of the chapter, discussion questions the students had written, and links to additional resources on the web. The left sidebar included a table of contents with links for navigating through the project in a nonlinear way.

As they clicked on individual pins, the 3-D Google Earth imagery, which is showcased in the center of the windows, allowed students to see where the characters traveled, where events took place, and any pertinent background information. By zooming to ground level, students could enter the world of the characters and better understand the novel’s setting. The information in the right sidebar of the pop-up windows supplied students with images and videos to reference for additional information.

For example, I included “broadsides”—notices written on paper and posted on the sides of buildings during Colonial times to deliver news, updates, and proclamations--as well as pictures of the Old North Church, the Minuteman Statue in Lexington, and the North Bridge in Concord. I also added videos of Revere’s ride and a British encampment and images of famous Patriot and British leaders.

Students were required to create discussion questions about the book as the class moved through it. The students’ discussion questions were added to a section entitled “Discussion Starters” to use for all-class discussions or as questions individual students would answer as part of an asynchronous assignment. In addition, I supplied links to resources on the web, such as facts and information about the American Revolution, timelines, primary source documents, and documents I had prepared and used as I taught the lesson. Some of the materials I created were Google Docs, Forms, Slide presentations, and WebQuests. Under the “Media” section, students could also see the need to cite their sources. I also created an entire website indicated by a pin entitled “Additional Resources” that includes a collection of additional information about the American Revolution and Colonial America.

I chose Google Earth for this project because it allowed me to put everything in one place. Students did not have to leave the interface to explore other components of the unit. Google Earth was the “container” or vehicle for constructing the unit and teaching the novel to the students. Although I used the globe in the middle to show events and locations, the sidebars and the inclusion of chapter summaries, student-written discussion questions, images, videos, and links to additional resources on the web were all part of teaching the unit.

Using the Google Earth interface allowed me to post images and videos in the top-right sidebar, much like illustrations in a book, which helped give the students a flavor of the time period, clothes, means of transportation, and so on. The images also helped with references to specific people and places in the novel. The videos helped explain things students might need more information about—for instance, how a British general might speak to a colonist, how townspeople in small towns and villages during Colonial times went about their daily lives, and how sealing wax worked on letters.

In addition, the sidebar allowed me to include a brief chapter summary, the students’ discussion questions, and links to resources on the web. I could also point to my own teacher-created resources with links to Google Docs, a Slide presentation, or a Form for the students to fill out. The components I was able to include worked together to deliver a cohesive unit.

Google Earth helped students really visualize the time period; the places where characters went; the fact they had horses, oxen, or foot as means of travel; and the distance between Boston and Redding, which underscores why the people of Redding did not feel the war’s effects as soon as the people in Boston did. That is significant to the emotions and feelings of the main character, Tim, as he struggles with whether he would be loyal to the King of England or become a rebel (Patriot). He keeps telling the reader in the beginning of the book that his life hadn’t changed much—that as far as he could tell, King George hadn’t done much to him. This was the case because his town, Redding, was not in the mainstream of the fighting in April 1775. Although his older brother Sam ran off to join the Patriot army, the war did not reach their town until the following year. Google Earth helped teach that concept. It helped readers become more engaged, gave them a better understanding of the setting, and helped immerse them in the story.

Both teachers and students can create Google Earth tours or projects. Teachers can use the tours for lessons, and students can use them for project-based learning, demonstrating what they have learned in a unit, and teaching their peers. Google Earth is web-based and is created in a browser (preferably Chrome at this time).

There is no software to install. The user enters “earth.google.com” in the browser’s address bar, and Google Earth will launch. After making some choices in the “Settings” menu about how much information the globe should display (boundaries, bodies of water, streets, buildings, highways, etc.), the user gives the tour a name and can add a description. A search box allows for searching locations of specific places. Once located, the user can click the globe, adjust the view, and add a colored pin and label. The user then searches for the next location, adds another pin to the globe, and continues the process. Lines can be drawn on the globe to connect pins or outline locations. In addition, each pin has a sidebar that can contain information to enhance the visitor’s experience. Images, videos, text, and hyperlinks can be added to explain concepts. Once they have completed the project, the creator of the tour can share a link to it with others. Visitors view the presentation by clicking on the pins in the left sidebar or using the table of contents. Google Earth will “fly” to each location marked by a pin. Once there, visitors can zoom in and out for different views of the map, explore areas around the marked locations, and read additional information the creator has supplied in the sidebar. If the creator of the tour chooses, Google Earth “Knowledge Cards” can be added for additional information.

I used this method to teach literature, but it can be used for just about any subject area, and it lends itself to both in-person and remote styles of teaching. Teachers can introduce their students to places such as the Eiffel Tower, the Galapagos Islands, famous volcanoes, historic buildings, national parks, and so much more. They can also teach concepts such as global warming, deforestation, beach erosion, historic battles, colonization, famous explorations, and lives of famous people. They can use Google Earth to create interactive lessons, add pertinent content, and link curriculum to the real world for their students. There are numerous ways that Google Earth can help connect student learning to the real world.

Carol LaRow, MA, is a Smithsonian Laureate, a Google Apps for Education certified trainer, and a Google Innovator.

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