A Land-Use-Planning Simulation Using Google Earth: Search Maps

Article excerpt

Google Earth (GE) is proving to be a valuable tool in the science classroom for understanding the environment and making responsible environmental decisions (Bodzin 2008). GE provides learners with a dynamic mapping experience using a simple interface with a limited range of functions. This interface makes geospatial analysis accessible and feasible for classroom use. The ability to use, analyze, and interpret remotely sensed satellite and aerial images is becoming more and more important in many scientific and industrial fields. To promote these skills in our eighth-grade science curriculum, we developed a four-week land-use-change curricular unit in which students use geospatial information technology tools including GE and other remotely sensed images to investigate modern-day land-use issues and land-use change over time. The land-use-change (LUC) unit is available online at www. ei.lehigh.edu/nes/luc. The unit's activities can be successfully implemented with pairs of students working together on computers. Activities can also be implemented in a one-computer classroom with the teacher projecting the screen image to the front of the classroom and distributing printed copies of certain GE screenshots for the analysis activities. If computers are not available, providing students with printed copies of GE screenshots will enable them to complete the learning activities.

As a culminating activity, we developed a role-playing simulation in which learners investigate the following question: Where should the new SuperMart Corporation build their new superstore in the greater metropolitan Lehigh Valley area to have minimal impact on the environment? In this six-day activity, students use Google Earth to analyze and evaluate features of different land areas for four proposed development sites (days 1 and 2). They develop a proposal to apply smart growth principles to their planning decisions (days 3 and 4) and communicate their plan with a presentation in a simulated planning-commission meeting (days 5 and 6). Smart growth is a term used to describe the desire and strategy to provide new growth and development in the most appropriate areas while protecting our natural resources. Although this activity was developed for a land-use-change unit, it can also be integrated into a middle school curricular unit that focuses on environmental issues related to human impacts on the environment.


Most urban areas experience commercial, industrial, and residential development associated with population growth and expansion, which may result in a loss of natural vegetation, agricultural lands, and open space (Alberti 2005). Such growth is often accompanied by a general decline in the extent and connectivity of wildlife and wetland habitat. Land-cover and land-use changes can be substantial but are difficult to grasp when they occur incrementally (Laymon 2003). Image displays in GE, when used with overlay features such as roads and 3-D buildings in urban areas, provide support for students to identify and interpret land-cover features (Bodzin and Cirucci, forthcoming).

The LUC unit is designed to assist students in understanding land-use-change concepts including urban heat-island effects and to promote the learning of essential skills used in aerial-photo interpretation. Urban heat islands occur when heat builds up in a city and creates a "hot spot" compared to nearby suburban and rural areas. To understand concepts involved in the formation of urban heat islands, students investigate how shopping malls change natural environments. They learn how communities can use certain heat-island reduction strategies to lower the impact of an urban heat-island effect. Students complete a case study of the greater Atlanta area to understand environmental issues that are typically associated with sprawl. Their investigations continue with a case study of the Lehigh Valley (LV) area in Pennsylvania to identify area land features. …