04/23/2015  |  By Jason Hubbard

This is Boring

As educators, one of our greatest challenges is to make learning relevant and fun. This is particularly true in the earth sciences, an integral part of STEM learning. One activity that took the college learning community by storm, and is now being utilized in K-12 is a high-tech treasure hunt of sorts, an activity called Geocaching. Geocaching teaches students, and their teachers, how to use signals from GPS satellites to locate and use objects, or information hidden at fixed positions. Today, GPS technology is widely used in everything from daily driving to mapping demographic information to determine a school district’s personnel needs.

For students, GPS (and GIS) technologies give them real-world applications and a way to study many of the STEM disciplines in an interdisciplinary way.

One of the problems we educators dealt with in the past was that students were engaged with technology outside the classroom and bored with curriculum inside the classroom. Even though we brought technology into the classroom through 1:1 laptop initiatives,large-scale iPad purchases and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), we still struggle with making learning relevant and fun. With the evolution of standards, and the elevation of testing and data, we excelled at utilizing technology in schools to serve these purposes. But has this been best for our students? Have we in fact squeezed all the fun and enjoyment out of learning in the process?

If children are to be successful and enjoy their learning, then the curricula and the technology must work together to create meaningful learning experiences for them. If not, sedentary and stagnant half-listeners are bred in our classrooms. Students need to interact with one another, solve meaningful problems together and possibly have some fun doing it!

Geocaching is capable of providing an experiential learning environment, as well as foster 21st century learning skills. It can take students beyond the four walls of the classroom to engage with each other and with their peers around the world. This technology can bring even the most mundane curriculum to life, and the best part is, it’s more affordable than most handheld devices students tote around in their pockets these days.

To the Rescue

GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, like any mobile technology, is exciting for young people to use. Today’s children are inundated with an array of mobile devices like iPods, portable video games and smart phones. GPS receivers are used as navigation and measurement tools.They plot and receive real-time data. They interface with other technologies to visualize geography and maps. GPS receivers promote direction and spatial awareness. For the adventurous educator, they also provide the means for students to find hidden treasures of knowledge.

The sport of geocaching has only been around since 2000, but it has become a worldwide phenomenon in that short time period. Combining the use of GPS technology with hiking in order to seek “caches” or hidden containers, geocaching draws high-tech treasure hunters into exciting adventures all over the globe and even into space. It can be a joyful experience to find one of these caches in a neighborhood park, especially if required to solve clues or puzzles to find what is hidden. The thrill of the hunt for something unknown and then finding it can be a very rewarding event. Benefits can include physical exercise, teamwork, good communication skills, enjoyment of nature, and the refreshing diversity and variety of each hunt.

In our schools, students can take part in geocaching type hunts in order to learn. Students can be equipped with GPS technology and work outdoors in teams to participate in activities that center around their academics. These hunts for learning can create a unique approach to teaching.Caching with students will promote critical thinking skills, STEM learning, problem solving, collaboration and enjoyment.

The Hunt for Learning

I took a group of 48 fifth grade students through two caching learning activities. In the first, the students were charged with the task of finding nine hidden specially-marked golf balls using their GPS receivers. Once found, students recorded the numbers of each golf ball. After the hunt and back in the classroom, the students utilized their collected data to solve a variety of math problems. In the second learning activity, the students took part in a hunt called EarthQuest (http://sciencespot.net/Pages/classgpslsn.html). This hunt consisted of different quests in which students worked cooperatively in teams to answer math and science questions related to earth resources and conservation. Using their GPS receivers, the teams raced against each other to accurately solve math and science problems they found in hidden containers. A correct solution would lead the team on to the next quest and this continued until all were completed. Only by applying correct results presented at the given station is a team qualified to move on to the next challenge.

Despite overcast skies, drizzling rain, and cooler temperatures during the hunts, the mood could not be dampened as students bobbed and weaved their way around the school’s campus. There was a kinetic energy as discovery and exploration exploded among the groups; it was the type of learning that is rarely seen within the confines of the traditional classroom. The students illuminated on this experiential learning environment in their open responses:

“In class, I can’t sit still long enough. If we did something like this every day, school would (almost) be the best thing in the world!”

“I think it was exciting. It [using GPS] kind of makes you listen more because you’re getting active.”

“I liked that we got to go out of the classroom for a change. It was different because we could go outside and experience learning in a different and fun way.”

On a scale from one to 10, with one being “No fun at all and I did not learn anything” and a 10 being “Best lesson ever — I had so much fun and learned alot,” one student insisted he be allowed to give the activity an 11.

As the students raced around, the problem solving ensued. For example, many groups experienced an issue with their GPS arrow pointing in one direction and then strangely shifting another direction. One group had a creative solution for the pointer problem. They walked in one direction until the arrow quit moving erratically, then turned and walked the way the arrow was pointing. If they could not find the cache, they repeated this in another direction and worked their way back to the source. By walking in a sort of “clover leaf” pattern, they were able to make sense of the GPS data and find the hidden cache. As engaged learners, this group showed initiative, persevered, and had fun in the face of a challenging learning task.

Back at Headquarters

I also enjoy geocaching with my family and friends. It’s innovative and fun. I recognized right away the merits of the game and the potential in it for my students. My school principal did not hesitate to fund the purchase of a dozen GPS receivers for school use after presenting how the geocaching game concept can be used as an educational tool. Technology and curriculumworking harmoniously is exciting. This unique approach is now spreading across the U.S. and the world.

Jason Hubbard is a STEM educator in Perrysburg schools, where he has taught for the past 12 years. He is also the author of the educaching curriculum, which can be found at www.educaching.com.
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