You might not expect to see groups of educators running from place to place in downtown Austin, but that’s exactly what passersby saw Feb. 7 as attendees of the Texas Computer Education Association’s annual conference participated in “geocaching”–an outdoor scavenger hunt in which enthusiasts across the planet use handheld global positioning system (GPS) devices to locate hidden outdoor objects.

Educators at TCEA received an introduction to geocaching, with an eye toward how it might fit into their curricula. But in its global form, geocaching takes place all over the world.

The word “geocaching” comes from “geo,” for geography, and “caching,” for the process of hiding a cache. In computer terms, a cache is information usually stored in memory to make it faster to retrieve, but the term also is used in hiking or camping as a place for concealing and preserving provisions.

The idea requires individuals and organizations to set up caches in certain locations, then share those locations, via latitude and longitude, on the geocaching web site. Others can use their handheld GPS devices to find the location coordinates and, in turn, the cache.

A cache usually contains a logbook documenting who found it and any other notes the finder wants to write down. Many caches contain small items, and if they do, visitors are asked to leave an item of similar value to replace the one they retrieve from the cache–for example, a visitor might find a small game or CD in a cache and might leave a piece of jewelry or tickets to a museum in its place.

One participant termed it a “high-tech scavenger hunt.”

Teachers can integrate geocaching into their curriculum in many ways, said Cindy Gault, Area 5 director for TCEA and the instructional technology coordinator for the Hardin-Jefferson Independent School District.

The activity includes lessons on satellites, latitude and longitude, mapping, distance, and problem solving, as well as collaboration, she said. Not every student has to have his or her own GPS unit, requiring students to work together in teams to reach different caches.

“This could be a really cool school activity,” Janet LaMasters, chair of the computer science department at Ursuline Academy of Dallas, said of the geocaching activity. “It definitely has possibilities.”

LaMasters said her school is considering purchasing some 10 handheld GPS units, and she said she wanted to see what the geocaching program had to offer.

“It’s fun for kids and teachers,” she said, adding that it might also be a good professional development activity for educators.

The geocaching web site offers information on how to hide a cache and what kind of GPS unit is suitable. TCEA attendees used either a Garmin eTrex or a Magellan eXplorist 210.

Users can find trackable caches posted on the geocaching web site. They also can visit forums, find answers to general geocaching questions, and learn how to hide their own caches.

In addition to “regular” caches, participants also can find offset caches, multi-caches, and virtual caches.

Offset caches are not found simply by going to the designated coordinates and finding a cache. The published coordinates are those of an existing historical monument, plaque, or similar landmark. From this site, the cache hunter must look around and find offset numbers stamped or written on some part of the marker site–or continue based on instructions posted to the geocaching web site.

Multi-caches consist of one cache that gives coordinates (or partial coordinates) to a second location, or multiple caches that give hints to a final cache.

Virtual caches are based on an existing landmark, such as a tombstone or statue. Geocachers have to answer a question from the landmark and let the cache “owner” know the answer, as proof that they were there.

Those who participated in the geocaching sessions at TCEA said they were looking forward to taking their experiences back to fellow educators and their students.

LaMasters offered a final word of advice–be sure to look up from your GPS unit and check for traffic before crossing the street.

Editor’s Note: For more live coverage from TCEA 2008, visit eSchool News’ Conference Information Center.

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Geocaching