GPS for Geography teachers

(part 2 - teaching ideas can be found here)


The GPS, or Global Positioning System is a network of US satellites and ground stations that provides a world-wide navigation system. The technology has rapidly developed, becoming cheaper and more accessible, transforming into a "universal utility" according to the excellent introduction to GPS that may be found here. Students are increasingly aware of the craze for satellite navigation systems in cars, and they respond very well to digital spatial technologies when used effectively in the classroom.

Why use GPS?

There are many reasons for investing in GPS. Some teachers will buy a GPS receiver for their personal use, others will see benefits in purchasing a few devices to enhance fieldwork or outdoor education. For those needing to write a bid for resources, the most convincing arguments would include the following points:
• To introduce new ICT technology (links to the world of work too.)
• Enhance the accuracy and credibility of geographical fieldwork.
• Bring maps and aerial photographs to life.
• Essential safety and navigation aid (never get lost on Dartmoor again!)
• Opportunities for fun educational activities, for example treasure hunting.
• Cross-curricular links with maths science and PE.
• Opportunity to set up links with local primary schools.
• Numeracy opportunities, for example in surveying, map making and understanding the technology.

Flushed with success from your exciting bid proposals...

What equipment should you buy?

In this section I'll outline the various options for exploring the technology.

* I cannot overstress the fact that there are many different devices and competing software products, and the functionality of one system may not be duplicated by another. There are major compatibility issues with GPS receivers and connecting cables, personal computers, operating systems and mapping software, therefore it is essential to know the exact specifications of your chosen device, and have a good idea of your intended use before embarking on a purchase. For example some receivers can't be connected to a laptop computer. Many don't have altimeter features.

Basic handheld GPS receivers:

Picture of Garmin Etrex
The Garmin Etrex illustrated, is a cheap and functional basic GPS.
At the most simple level, a basic handheld GPS should allow you to do the following:
Fix a position using a variety of co-ordinate systems (latitude and longitude and British OS grid at the very least)
• Navigate along a set route.
• Record speed and distance data.
• Find a fixed point.
• Link to a PDA or computer to allowing the import and export of GPS data. which can then be analysed and mapped.
• Interact with a digital map or aerial photograph, for example Memory Map.

My choice

geko 201
I brought Garmin Geko 201 models for our school.
They connect to a PC, are lightweight, highly visible and seem quite well made, though I have some reservations about the longevity of the battery compartment lid. These units also have some fun games!
The main reason for choosing this unit was the ease of use. No handheld GPS is going to be totally intuitive for children, but there are only 4 buttons, which are fairly self-explanatory.

I have made a users guide for the Garmin Geko 201. It is in 2 parts, and designed to be printed off in colour and laminated together.
Download the guide
(0.9 mb Word doc)

Advanced handheld GPS receivers:


A more expensive version of the Etrex, these units offer more functionality and are correspondingly more expensive. Units like the Etrex Summit add a barometric altimeter and an electronic compass, useful for surveying for example. Other models, like the Etrex Legend add simple mapping functionality within the unit itself. (This could be useful when navigating around a foreign city, looking for an elusive art gallery for example!)
The illustrated receiver, the Vista C, combines a mapping facility with a variety of advanced features, although obviously is more expensive. I use a Garmin Etrex Vista as my personal handheld unit.

Another technology which may be worth considering for those who are only interested in using a digital OS map or aerial photograph on a laptop or PDA is to purchase a GPS unit designed to communicate wirelessly with a computer. Another option is a GPS jacket, basically a sleeve into which a compatible PDA can be fixed, resulting in a one-piece device. The main advantage is that there are no wires to connect the two devices, and the GPS device itself requires no input apart for switching on and off. Both Anquet and Memory Map work happily on a PDA, and the most recent versions will work on a Windows smart phone.

Mobile phone GPS

mobile phone gps

I have a simple bluetooth GPS that I brought cheaply from EBay. It is tiny, but much more powerful than my handheld GPS and the battery life is extremely generous. I use Wayfinder satellite navigation on my mobile phone, and record my tracks and waypoints using Phone2GEarth. The GPS sits in a pocket and can be forgotten. Another application for recording tracks is GE Track, though this program doesn't currently offer the facility to record placemarks. Both are excellent little applications if you own a suitable phone and a bluetooth GPS and although less practical for classroom use, they are great for the teacher on a field trip. A web-enabled mobile with a fairly good camera is also great for moblogging. Finally, 3D Tracking allows you to track a mobile phone in real time. It's free and very easy to use - great for high tech man-hunt!

Global Positioning provided most of the images above and I highly recommend this company from personal experience. Read their buyers guide here. Prices are for guidance only, but you should avoid paying more than the suggested figure. Although there are a number of different manufactures, Garmin have a particularly good reputation. Connecting cables and digital map software are available from Memory Map, who have conveniently signed up to Curriculum Online so that you can unleash your e-learning credits!!

GPS data - using it!

Some digital map programs like Anquet and Memory Map will communicate directly with your GPS, exchanging data between the unit and a PC. A suitable cable is required. If your PC doesn't have a serial port (increasingly likely) then you will often need to buy a USB to serial converter cable, since most GPS units at the time of writing still have serial port connectivity. Some degree of patience is often required before your GPS will communicate happily with your PC. Online forums are the best place to go for help.

There are several websites that will display your GPS waypoints and tracks. Options include Google Earth files, interactive maps, spectacular animations and coloured graphs. In order to make use of these services you need to be able to export data from your GPS. A third party application like Easy GPS is required to exchange data with a computer. GPS data is usually saved in .gpx format, and files of this type can be read by websites such as GPS Visualizer and Magnalox.

GPS technologies are worth $8 billion per year, yet their use in classrooms is at an early stage of adoption. Students respond very positively when given opportunities to use GPS and digital maps. I have a set of Garmin Geko units that can be borrowed by Somerset schools.

Teaching ideas

From Juicy Geography part 2 of this article


GPS manufacturers:
Garmin A well designed site with plenty of information about their equipment, as well as downloadable software updates and other information; for example does my GPS float?

GPS distributors:
Compare GPS prices and buy from this site's sponsors: who are Shopzilla
Global Positioning
Excellent and informative site from a highly recommended company. A useful GPS glossary is here, and there is a very helpful advice section and forum, as well as detailed information on GPS and mapping products, together with a highly efficient online purchasing store.

Teaching ideas:
These sites contain links to large collections of US based school materials, and ideas for lessons on GIS and GPS.
Lesson plan resources
GIS /GPS in K12 education

About GPS:
Trimble are GPS manufactures who deserve credit for their excellent Shockwave presentation about the technology.
The Global Positioning System
Super detailed information about how GPS works!

GPS data recording and management:
Easy GPS
Free GPS data management software that offers a user friendly interface. The essential download.
GPS Visualizer
This site offers the opportunity to create maps using your GPS data and an online generator. It gets better all the time and is a stunning free resource!
Another brilliant site for visualizing your data.
Phone2GEarth and GE Track
If you have a Nokia series 60 phone and a bluetooth GPS you'll need these indispensable and very cheap programs. One of the easiest and most rewarding ways into the technology.
Track your phone in real time using 3D Tracking It's free, works brilliantly and if you trust students with your mobile, could make a great manhunt-type activity.

These sites offer mapping software for GPS data :
Expert GPS
Memory Map
Purveyors of the best OS digital mapping package, as well as indispensable products such as cables to link a PDA and GPS which you'll have a job finding anywhere else!
Another option for digital maps that work well with a GPS.
Wayfinder satellite navigation
Brilliant mobile phone satellite navigation software that I recommend.

Feeling energetic?
Geocache uk

Other useful sites
The ultimate GPS resource!
A useful equipment review site
Travel by
A great site that might inspire you to make your your own GPS trails. Lots of other information too
Article about turning off selective availability
This article will make you think a little more about the origins of the technology!
GPS drawing
A great activity for younger students