GPS & Place-based Learning

girl with gpsLarry and Satby Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson

Start an exploration of your community with where you are... literally. There are exciting things to discover everywhere. We've been traveling throughout North America for the past six years and we're just starting to scratch the surface.

Follow our adventures on the Lamb and Johnson page. From the Motosat Datastorm RVers page, you can even track our exact location using GPS coordinates. Use GPS, GIS, and mapmaking activities to explore and record the public and private areas where you live.

Place-based Learning

Place-based education connects schools with the local community by grounding learning in local phenomena and lived experiences. Rooted in Dewey’s focus on authentic learning, placed based approaches include cultural and historical studies, nature exploration, and real-world problem solving.

This idea of authentic, experiential learning also has roots in the Foxfire movement of the 1960s stressing active learning, collaboration, reflection, creativity, and community connections. The program focuses on 11 core practices that revolve around the idea that "classrooms should be dynamic learning sites where students and teachers work as partners to meet the goals of the curriculum". Read about their eleven core practices for teaching and learning.

In the article Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: Hearing the Different Drum, Michael L. Umphrey focuses on the need to develop education-centered communities where students, teachers, and community members collaborate to build a strong community. Umphrey advocates five approaches:

  • Make community the focus of serious study
  • Use oral interviewing
  • Invite mentors to join
  • Give "gifts of scholarship" back to the community
  • Establish an archives

As you examine your community, ask yourself:

  • What is “our community”?
  • What makes us like other communities?
  • What makes us unique?
  • How can we share this idea?
  • How is our community like and different from others?

The Old Man River Project combined the science and history of the Mississippi River with interesting community projects that incorporated a wide range of technologies including GPS, digital cameras, and electronic primary sources. The project began with a focus on towns in western Illinois and expanded to include communities in the ten states along the Mississippi River.

According to Greg Smith, Professor of Education at Lewis & Clark College, "Place-based education focuses on using local knowledge, phenomena, and experience as the foundation for teaching and learning. Its aim is to connect children and youth more firmly to their own communities and regions." His definition stresses cultural studies, nature studies, real-world problem-solving, internships and opportunities, and community processes. In an article titled Place-based education: Learning to be where we are in Phi Delta Kappan, Smith describes an urban renewal grant that involved the transformation of mill ponds into a park. High school students used GPS to locate and tag woody debris areas that make effective salmon and bird habitat. Like many GPS projects, the initial GPS and mapping work lays the foundation for future classes.


The key to effective place-based projects is knowing yourself and your community and helping students seek a larger global connection. Consider those things that are unique to your communication including history, environment, culture, economy, literature, art, and music. Many educational and social organizations are building exciting community connections. For example, the Project for Public Spaces focuses on building public spaces for communities in projects like Littleton Places.

Another well-known advocate of Place-based Education is Annenburg's Rural Challenge Grant programs part of The Rural School and Community Trust. Read They Remember What they Touch…The Impact of Place-Based Learning in East Feliciana Parish by Emeka Emekauwa and Doris Terry Williams (PDF). Also, read MEASURES Producing Productive Place-Based Projects by James Lewicki. read What Does Place-Based Learning Look Like? Examples of Place-Based Learning Portfolios from The Rural School and Community Trust. It provides a great resource for documenting and assessing place-based learning including rubrics that you can use to assess your program.

Successful programs seem to focus on:

  • local phenomena
  • students as creators
  • students ownership
  • teachers as guides
  • sharing community involvement

Teachers are viewed as facilitators. While students use scaffolding such as guidelines, worksheets, and existing data, teachers act as guides and partners.

GPS Real World Applications

The National Geodetic Survey was formed by Thomas Jefferson in 1807 to survey the US coastline.

benchmarkGeodesy – a science that involves measuring changes in the location of points on the Earth’s surface, Earth size and shape. Uses fixed locations (benchmarks), stable structures (monuments), multiple points (datum), along with triangulation, trigonometry, & GPS. References include latitude (equator), longitude (Greenwich, England), and elevation (sea level). Elements include control, space, and user. Benchmarks are markers placed by surveyor from the US government to identify specific locations.

Learn the basics of GPS

Learn more about GPS and Geodesy at the following website:

GPS devices are one example of an inexpensive technology that can be used across the curriculum for a wide variety of activities. When tied to Internet, it provides a way to share authentic data and experiences around the world.

To learn more about GPS Coordinates:

fireReal-world Applications

When working with students it's important to stress the many "real world" applications of GPS. For example, the National Park Service uses GPS/GIS to plan and implement fire control programs. Some areas include:

  • Area burned
  • Burn intensity
  • Structure locations
  • Road and trail access
  • Water sources
  • Location/type of fuel in fire path
  • Fire progression & line construction
  • Planning treatments & prescribed fire

Students can be involved in these kinds of projects. For example, a group of students in Colorado conducted a Fire Risk Assessment.

Common Applications. GPS technology is commonly used in many fields.

  • Earthquake prediction
  • Building roads & bridges
  • Making maps
  • Landing aircraft
  • Navigating ships
  • Tracing health of land and sea

Track a Person. GPS in wrist and ankle bands, implants, watches, pagers, cell phones, and Onstar are all used for tracking. Learn more at TravelbyGPS.

  • Child Locator
  • House Arrest
  • Sex Offenders
  • Alzheimer’s Patients

Track Transportation. GPS is used in many vehicles.

  • Truckers
  • Construction workers
  • Scientists
  • FEMA workers
  • Flights
  • Military
  • Cars - Onstar

The Real-time Data Sites website can be used to find many other applications of GPS. GPS from FAA to track airlines.

Take to Location. GPS is used for fun and work in specific locations. For example, it's used by government surveyors as well as geocachers.

horsebackTourist's Path. GPS is often used by tourists to mark and find specific locations.

  • Driving
  • Horseback riding
  • Walking & running
  • Golfing
  • Hiking
  • Scuba diving
  • Mountain climbing
  • Flying

Town and City Tours. GPS is used by many tourism groups to mark locations of structures and natural places.

  • What are the key sites?
  • What photos could be used? comparisons - old/new buildings
  • How GPS waypoints are needed?
  • What maps & guides will help?

Byways and Trails. GPS is used to mark roads and trails for hikers, bikers, and cars.

  • National Scenic Highways
  • BLM Scenic Byways
  • State Historic Projects
  • Coastal Drives
  • Route 66
  • Historic Trails
  • Pony Express Route
  • Civil War Sites

Walking Tours. GPS can be used for walking tours through communities and parks. Groups may use maps, guides, audio, and photos.

  • Cemetery tours
  • Historic markers
  • Community tours
  • Historic homes
  • Small parks
  • Buildings and grounds

Historical fair in Grand Rapids OhioHistorical Reenactments. GPS is used to mark exact locations and times for meetings and events. These are great opportunities for students to write historical fiction.

  • Lewis and Clark
  • Oregon Trail
  • Trail of Tears
  • Underground Railroad

Storytelling. GPS is great for activities that involve meeting at a particular location or events where the goal is to give people the sense for what it might have been like to have lived in a particular place in a different time period. For example, you might convene in the location of an historical tribal meeting or at an old fort. Shelbyville, Illinois holds a cemetery walk in the fall. Storytelling is enhanced when participants experience the same location as the original event.

waterfallNatural Places. GPS devices can be used to locate a range of natural places and reduce the need for signage.

  • Geologic formations
  • Hot springs
  • Geysers
  • Waterfalls
  • Animal migration
  • Dinosaur tracks

For example, middle school students in Wheelock, Vermont conducted a Study of Soils that involved using GPS units to collect waypoint used in mapping soil types. They used worksheets to note GPS locations, site descriptions, sketches, soil profiles, and soil type analysis.

Ecosystems. GPS is used to monitor ecosystems.

  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Salmon Movement
  • Changes in sea level
  • Hillside Erosion
  • Migration Patterns

ruinsRemote Location Tours. GPS devices work particularly well in areas without signs such as historic sites, building ruins, petroglyph locations, ghost towns and natural areas.

Biological Surveys. GPS can be used for many types of scientific surveys including remote navigation, locating specific points on ground, mapping species encountered, mapping geological features, and mapping boundaries. Scientists trace changes over time and can compare "before and after".

For example, students at Thompson Valley High School conducted a student of the watershed using GPS and GIS.

Scientific Experiments. GPS has been used to trace animals such as bears, wolves, and birds. It's used to mark old coal mines, mark underground wiring paths, and watch sink hold development. These markers are used for making comparisons on subsequent visits.

Working collaboratively with the Colorado Division of Wildllife, Routt County Sheriff's Deparment, and the Colorado State Patrol, students in Colorado were involved in a Critical Control Project collecting data about animals killed on the roads.

Specific Topics. GPS can be used for many specific projects such as:

  • Intermittent streams
  • Unsafe areas - cliffs, mines
  • Water habitat surveys
    • migration barriers
    • logjams
    • spawning/rearing areas
    • test management practices
    • population checks

For example, middle school students in Vermont participated in a riverbank erosion project tracing changes in a river over time.

Mining. GPS is often used in mining:

  • Calculate boundaries of leach fields of mine recovery
  • Trace flows & disturbances
  • Locate property lines
  • Check old shafts
  • Check compliance - air, water

Forestry and Agriculture. GPS is often used in forestry and agriculture:

  • Map noxious weed infestations
  • Plan agriculture plantings
  • Mark irrigation wells
  • Check harvest areas
  • Document soil sampling sites
  • Match to satellite imagery
  • Map wood harvesting roads

Third through fifth grade students at the Sheldon School in Vermont, mapped a local forest then wrote about being good stewards of the forest.

Utilities. GPS is used by utility companies:

  • Identify, plan, manage
    • Electric and gas lines
    • Wind farms, cell towers
    • Oil wells and storage tanks
    • Water systems
    • Service roads & facilities

Real Estate. GPS is used in real estate:

  • Listing and selling property
  • Appraisals
  • Location exploration
  • Easements
  • Location of fences, tanks, improvements
  • Planning sales of acreage/tracts

Government. GPS is used by government agencies:

  • Cities
    • Drainage, water, utilities
    • Project locations
  • Homeland Security

Historic Locations. GPS is used by many museums and historical societies to mark locations and map structures and locations:

  • School
  • Post Office
  • Courthouse
  • Jail
  • Homes
  • Businesses

Some states are working on GPS projects for historic locations such as courthouses. For example, the GPS coordinates of the Georgia County Courthouses are online.

Sites for Thought. GPS devices are sometimes used to mark specific locations or document locations. Authors and others may write descriptions, poetry, or short stories.

The GeoSnapper is a GPS photography website that allows participants to upload and share geo-referenced digital photographs.

Artists mark locations, draw or paint locations, or create an artistic map of the area. Try this activity. Match photos from a location to abstract artwork.

Special Events. GPS is often used in special events.

  • Olympics
    • torch movement
    • events planning
  • Iditarod
  • Shipwreck Exploration
  • Lewis & Clark Events

historic trailsRecreation. GPS is used for many recreational activities.

  • Historic trail markers
  • Bike route markers
  • Horseback riding
  • Finding good fishing

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial project is placing a series of markers.

Agencies. Many agencies are involves with GPS-based projects.

  • US Army Corps of Engineers
    • dams, dikes, levees
  • Bureau of Land Management
    • land surveys
    • public use areas
    • historical markers
  • Highway Departments
  • Utilities Companies




larry at geocacheGeocaching is a popular activity that involves searching for a particular location using the GPS coordinates. Geo means earth and caching stands for a computer cache or cache of treasure.

cannon gpsA virtual cache means the location contains no treasure or marking. These are often used for natural locations or historic sites where no trace should be left of your visit. Consider spots that are good for photography. Identify a trail without establishing trail. These may be places that are good for fishing or have a unique feature such as slick rocks.

A regular cache contains a treasure.

geocacheGeocaching involves exploring, hiking, finding, working, and playing all at once. Learn more at

Part of the geocaching website focuses on Benchmarking. The website lists benchmark locations and asks you to find and photograph the location.


The rest of this section of the workshop can be found at our geocaching website. This website addressing placing a cache and project for students.


Class Applications

boy with gpsThere are many classroom applications of the GPS.

Starter Projects

Now and Then

Nature Trail or Walk

  • GPS location – Photographs, Identify plants, rocks, features, Guide, Map with stops
  • Ideas: Wildflowers, Trees, Mushrooms, Lichens and moss, Rocks, Fossils, Rock formations

Historic Trail or Walk

  • GPS location – Photographs, Identify locations, people, history, Guide, Map with stops
  • Ideas: Petroglyphs, Tombstones, Historical markers, Simulate a time period: artifacts, music, situation

Virtual Walk through History

  • Mark location with GPS. Collect artifacts related to that location.
  • Read a short story or poem set in that location.
  • Ask students to write about a fictional person who might have lived there.
  • What would they see?

Standards Review

  • Use GPS locations to focus on identified “standards” need areas
  • Instructions - writing step-by-step instructions for getting to a location or doing something at a particular location
  • Observations - writing quality descriptions (i.e., terrain, historic building, landscape)

Photo Tour

  • Mark GPS location.Take a photo. Write a description.
  • Ask a member of your other community to locate a place with similar features based only on the written description and take a photograph. Examine the photographs and do a visual comparison.

Author Exploration

  • Author writes about a particular spot.
  • Read a novel, short story or poem.
  • Locate that area using GPS or GIS.
  • Write your own prose about a particular place of your choice.
  • Mark that spot with a GPS location and include this in the prose.
  • Ask others to reflect on this spot as it relates to the prose.

Author Variations

  • Pre-select locations for creative writing
  • Design specific types of writing activities such as poetry types, free prose, etc.
  • Use a GPS location as a starter for persuasive writing (i.e., concerns about old buildings, historic buildings, pollution, traffic problems)

Book Focus


  • Mississippi River Ideas - Mark Twain; Richard Peck’s, The River Between Us

Building Projects

  • Archiving History, Remodeling Building

Interdisciplinary Approaches

  • Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies

Use Your Senses

  • Locate interesting sensory items.           
  • Create a multi-sensory exploration
  • Jeffrey pine smells like…Pumice stones are…Pine cones contain…


  • Testing equipment, Audio recordings, Maps, Notepads and Sketchpads
  • Worksheets, Cameras and video recorders

Recent GPS Uses

  • RV Travel Routes
  • Found house in St. George
  • Starting point for trail
  • Explore erosion over time
  • How historic site was changed - Silver Dollar City
  • Create directions for others

What can the GPS do that you can’t do effectively another way?

  • Natural objects, Structures, Trace movement, Compare same place over time

10 Tips for Accuracy

  1. Use outdoor locations
  2. Consider impact of buildings
  3. Consider time of year/tree density
  4. Do multiple readings
  5. Come from 3 directions/encircle
  6. Don’t make sudden turns
  7. Take 2 readings before setting
  8. Provide a visual clue
  9. Keep batteries charged
  10. Remember, it’s not exact

Join a Group

Community Places

  • Roads
  • Bridges
  • City and County Structures
  • Historic Locations
    • Indian mounds
    • Underground railroad

Simple GPS Applications

  • Don’t create a “GPS project”… Instead…
  • Add locations to “now & then”
  • Create virtual tour of community
  • Identify features of location
  • Track environmental information
    • Newsletter Format
    • Virtual Tour Format

Try It!

  • Rather than saying, how can I use the GPS and GIS? Ask what do I want to do?
  • Then, ask how the GPS, websites, digital camera, and other technology can help achieve this goal.

Grade Level

  • English/Art
  • Math/Science
  • Social Studies
    • Create a learning guide.
    • Include GPS location.
    • A problem to solve.

Place-based Learning... starting where you are.


Recommended Readings

Selected GPS Websites

Selected Readings in GPS & Place-based Learning

Bishop, S. (2004). The power of place. English Journal, 93(6), 65-69. This article provides a great overview of place-based education.

Community Service Journal. Supports teaching practices that build community. Available:

Corporation for National and Community Service (Accessed June 2005). Available:

Environmental Education on the Internet. Supports educators seaching for environmental education resources. Available:

Firek, Hilve. (2002). The English Teacher and Technology: Friends or Foes? WILLA, Volume 11, p. 30-32. Available:

Lewicki, James. 100 Days of Learning in Place: How a Small School Utilized 'Place-Based' Learning to Master State Academic Standards.

Gibbs, T., & Howley, A. (2000). World-class standards and local pedagogies: Can we do both? Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EDO-RC-008). This article focuses on a balance between national standards and local needs.

Gruenewald, D. (2003). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for
place-conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 619-654.

Gruenewald, D. (2003). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place.
Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3-12.

Martin, J. (2001). Learning to teach students in the community and environment.
Clearing Magazine, 110, 10-13.

National & Community Service. Available:

National Service Learning Clearinghouse. Available:

National Commission on Service Learning (January 2002). Learning in Deed: The Power of Service-Learning for American Schools. Available:

Kehrberg, Gretchen. Place-based Education: An Annotated Bibliography, Clearing: Teaching Resources for Ecology, Sustainability, and Community. Available:

Rural School and Community Trust. Leaders in place-based learning. Available:

Smith, Gregory (April 2002). Place-Based Education: Learning to Be Where We Are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 584-594.

Smith, Gregory (2002). Going local. Educational Leadership, 60(1), 30-33.

Smith, Gregory (1998). Rooting Children in Place. Encounter, 11(4), 13-24.

Smith, G. (2001). Learning Where We Live. San Francisco, CA: Funders Forum on Environment and Education. Available:

Stokely, K. (2003) What is Place-Based Learning; Features of High Quality Leadership; Features of High Quality Place-Based Learning; and Stages of Implmentation. Adopt-A-Watershed, Hayfork, CA.

Theobald, P., & Curtiss, J. (2000). Communities as curricula. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 15(1), 106-111.

Woodhouse, J. (2001). Over the river and through the 'hood: Re-viewing "place" as a focus of pedagogy. Thresholds in Education, 27(3 & 4), 1-5.

Umphrey, Michael L. (October 16, 2003). Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: Hearing the Different Drum, The Montana Heritage Project.

What Does Place-Based Learning Look Like? Examples of Place-Based Learning Portfolios, The Rural School and Community Trust.


Created by Annette Lamb, 6/04. Updated and expanded, 10/08.