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Geoconferencing: GPS, travel bugs, and learning–oh my!

A geocaching app makes it easy for those with mobile devices to participate in activities. (Image from

Gone are the days of traditional school pen pals and classrooms mailing packages back and forth—today’s students and teachers are using ed-tech to have virtual conversations with classrooms across their states and throughout the nation using a phenomenon known as geoconferencing.

Geoconferencing marries two well-known concepts: video conferencing and geocaching—an outdoor scavenger hunt in which students use GPS devices and mobile devices to travel to specific coordinates in order to locate hidden items known as travel bugs. Travel bugs have unique codes that owners and participants can use to track a bug’s movement on

The travel bugs are accompanied by log books to record who discovers their hidden locations. Students may find that a travel bug originating in California has made its way to Ohio. Travel bugs resemble military dog tags and are usually hidden in small waterproof containers. Sometimes, they are accompanied by small items that are up for grabs—but if an item is taken, another item of similar value must be left in its place.

(Next page: How can educators start and use geoconferencing activities?)Students use video conferencing to communicate with their partner classrooms and can do this through safe educational social networking sites such as Edmodo or ePals. During these sessions, they track their travel bugs and trade information about the bugs’ journeys.

Geoconferencing engages students and also ties lessons in with real-world applications, said husband-and-wife duo Amanda Peterson and Jeff Peterson. The Petersons are campus instructional technology specialists (CITS) in Lamar CISD in Texas.

Teachers can use geoconferencing in a variety of subject areas, the Petersons said, including:

  • Science: Track weather patterns during a travel bug’s travels, observe vegetation and wildlife around the caches, and learn about native habitats and the environment and how those change as the travel bug moves
  • Social studies: Learn about the history in the area where bugs are hidden and travel, map the geography during a hunt for a travel bug, learn how to read and create maps, and learn about different cultures
  • Math: Make calculations to estimate how far a travel bug has traveled, compute the average time and distance traveled, measure the distance traveled on each leg of the journey as well as total distance traveled, and calculate how long it took the travel bug to reach its destination in seconds, minutes, hours, or days

In Lamar CISD, a team of fourth grade teachers from Bowie Elementary School partnered with a fourth grade class in El Paso. Each class hid a travel bug with the goal of having the two bugs trade places. Students created visuals to introduce students to one another. The classes connected through video conferencing and shared information about their locations, their travel bugs, and their environments.

Each class tracked its travel bug as it was in transit, and the students gave updates on each travel bug’s progress during regular video conferencing sessions. Those updates included educational facts and information about the places the travel bug visited.

After the Petersons and Bowie Elementary teachers put the travel bugs in place, they left the travel bugs’ movement up to independent geocachers, taking care to make a note on the website that the travel bugs were part of a class project.

That first year, said Jeff Peterson, one travel bug went all the way to Puerto Rico, and another made it to Maine.

“With these bugs going way outside our intended paths, we took advantage of the situation and used it for additional lessons with the students.  We did some research and found tie-ins about where the bug is currently located and our active lesson,” he said. “When the bug was moving up the East coast, it landed in Kentucky.  Our tie-in to Kentucky was Jim Bowie.  We were able to reference that he was born in Kentucky and his impact on Texas history.  It was a convenient coincidence that the students were attending Bowie Elementary.”At the start of the project’s second year, the Petersons attached a physical card to the travel bugs in order to inform geocachers that the travel bug they located was part of a school project, and that the project’s goal was to have travel bugs from two different schools switch places.

In addition to historical and geographical information about the travel bugs’ locations, students also used math to determine the miles the travel bugs logged, recorded weather patterns during the bugs’ travels, and learned about the cultures in the different areas that appeared on the travel bugs’ logs. Students could keep blogs or journals about the travel bugs.

The Petersons recommend that teachers in their district look into Google Earth and Google Maps, PowerPoint, website creation, and video conferencing and GPS tools. Handheld, durable GPS units are relatively inexpensive.

Students can use any video conferencing program, or can use web cams with Skype.

Educators who are not sure where to begin can go to Polycom’s Collaborations Around the Planet, which is a professional community of educators who are seeking to collaborate on video conferencing projects.

Follow Managing Editor Laura Devaney on Twitter @eSN_Laura.

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