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Create a class of GPS explorers with geocaching

Geocaching combines problem solving, collaboration, and appreciation for the outdoors

geocaching-classroomSeveral years ago I attended a Discovery Education Teacher Institute in San Francisco, and was pulled into the adventurous world of geocaching. It was there, near the windy shores of the San Francisco Bay, that I experienced my first techy treasure hunt. After giving a speedy lesson how to use a GPS device, facilitators helped split attendees into groups of three as we locked in a given set of coordinates to begin our search for a series of “caches,” or containers with coupons for free swag hidden inside. It was a terrific bonding experience for the group and friendships were quickly formed.

Geocaching is a location-based technology treasure hunting activity that combines the great outdoors with technology and learning. With a GPS device in hand, one can look for hidden containers anywhere on earth—anywhere! Like a homing pigeon, the device zeroes in on a hidden cache and the hunt is on—often through terrain and landscapes that otherwise go unnoticed. Most containers include a logbook of those who have found it in the past, and as a result, connect a community of geocachers.

As my school’s Instructional Technology Coach, I’m constantly in search of new and inventive ways to incorporate technology both inside and outside the classroom. And as I soon learned, geocaching is not only a unique way to integrate your standards, it also teaches responsibility and caring for the environment, as geocachers are expected to adhere to the movement’s creed of “Cache In Trash Out.”

Moving into fields and forests and making learning different and more enjoyable, geocaching creates unforgettable experiences for students that go well beyond the four walls of the classroom. Of course, there are a few hurdles to jump before diving in, but with a bit of planning teachers can be on their way to creating a fun activity for their students. First and foremost, a GPS device is needed, along with a solid lesson plan, and a safe place to hide the cache.

Next page: Which devices and apps to use

Geocaching no longer requires expensive equipment, making it much more accessible to beginners. For students, an expensive and elaborate GPS device isn’t necessary. GPS enabled smartphones offer the most economic option for geocaching, as many students already own the equipment, and need only purchase a geocaching app to participate.

For younger students, or those without smartphones, look for a device that is user friendly for inputting waypoints, accessible—and most importantly—durable. Expect to pay around sixty dollars per unit. I use the Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator with my students—though it is a bit more expensive than the Geomate Jr. Geocaching GPS.

Most geocaching is done in groups, so regardless of the device used, a successful geocaching lesson only requires a few devices. I have seven devices, which works out beautifully with a class of 25-30 students. For financial support, don’t forget to use the school’s PTO/PTA grants, fund raisers and Donors Choose (of course, purchasing a device will be a tax write-off!).

Here are a few of the smartphone apps I use with my students:

Geocaching ($9.99). The official geocaching app from (the Mothership of geochaching), this is the most expensive app on the market as well as the highest quality. Users will get access to the locations of registered caches and clues, and the app even offers the ability to submit your finds. This app is very easy to use and perfect for beginners and pros.

Geocaching Intro (Free). This is the free version of the GroundSpeak geocaching app, the company that runs the website. This is the app that I recommend to my students. While limited, this app reveals three geocaches near your current location per day; provides the necessary coordinates, hints, and descriptions; and delivers the directions to the hidden cache. I love the vibrating-chirping alert that warns you when you’re getting close to the cache site—a feature not included on the more expensive sister geocaching app.

Once equipped with devices, it’s time to engage the students in a meaningful lesson that will challenge their map-reading skills while affording them opportunities to work collaboratively and solve a problem.

There are several activities I have done with my students, from upper elementary to high school. To start, all students were taught how the device worked and learned how to input data as well as retrieve and set their own waypoints. Our fifth grade students became such experts that the principal asked them to lead the staff in professional development. From there, our principal hid staff handbooks all around the campus and had the teachers use the coordinates (and help of their fifth-grade buddies) to locate their handbook.

Activities can range from solving riddles to searching for hidden rubber ducks to embarking on geometry scavenger hunts. For a beginner lesson, hide caches near a specific tree, bush, or flower. Once students have located the cache, have them take a picture and identify the species of flora. (Placing a leaf from the tree or plant in the container would also work). You could also place a toy animal, picture, tooth, claw or hair sample inside the cache container and have students identify the object. Once all caches have been found, have them create a photo/identification booklet.

If you want students to develop curiosity about geography, math, science, and the world around them, then give geocaching a try. It’s a great activity for ESL and special needs students, allowing them the opportunity to work collaboratively and solve problems while incorporating the characteristics of an active and engaged learning environment.

For more, check out GoingApeForApps – Geocaching with Mobile Devices, which includes more lesson plans and ideas for getting started. Happy hunting!

Cheryl Phillips is an instructional technology coach in Prince William County, Va.

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