Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating GPS Technology with a Campus Geology Walking Tour

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating GPS Technology with a Campus Geology Walking Tour

Article excerpt


A university campus geology walking tour can provide students with the opportunity to examine a variety of geologic features as well as rock, mineral, and fossil specimens contained in building stones, monuments, and rock gardens. By incorporating handheld GPS receivers into the tour, the students are given the additional experience of using a relatively new technology as part of their field activity. The two combine well, and we find that students enjoy both the opportunity to apply knowledge they have learned in the classroom and the opportunity to gain a basic understanding and appreciation of GPS technology.


In disciplines such as the earth sciences, including field study in the curriculum adds value to students' experiences by exposing them to applied uses for classroom content. The idea of a campus field trip or walking tour as a means to this end has been used at several universities as a teaching tool (Switzer, 1995; Francek, 1996). This is particularly true in the geologic sciences, which often use campus walking tours to give students the opportunity to investigate geologic features as well as rocks, minerals, and fossil specimens in real world environments (Hess and Meierding, 1972; Witzke, 1984; Kemp, 1992; Hurst and Herrstrom, 1997; Jacobson and McKenzie, 1998).

We have developed a campus walking tour for introductory physical geology students which incorporates global positioning system (GPS) receivers. Our primary focus is to give students the opportunity to explore geology in their everyday surroundings. The secondary focus of the exercise is to introduce GPS to an audience with little or no experience using this technology. In our exercise, students use GPS in two ways to mimic real world usage. In the first part of the exercise, students record the positions of geologic features or specimens they are examining as a pair of latitude and longitude coordinates, since most students are familiar with this system. In the second part of the exercise, the students use the tracking functionality of the receiver to navigate to points stored on the receiver that we created and uploaded prior to assigning the exercise.

By introducing GPS to introductory students we hope that they will gain an appreciation for some of the strengths and weaknesses inherent within the technology (Trexler, 2000). We also feel there is value in providing introductory physical geology students, who are typically early in their academic careers, with the opportunity to utilize a tool encountered in sciences that involve field research, such as biology, geology, geography, and archeology. In these fields, GPS is commonly used to record the coordinate pairs and elevation values, from which samples are taken, for future mapping applications. GPS technology is also used in field research for finding or relocating sample localities, particularly on surfaces with few landmarks, such as open water or prairies. In addition, GPS lends itself to various applications involving the integration of mathematics and quantitative thinking into the Earth Sciences (Herrstrom, 2000; Johnson and Guth, 2002). Therefore, experience using GPS technology will likely be beneficial for students who may one day take part in field research. For students who will not go on to use GPS for research activities, this exercise can still be valuable because it introduces students to a technology that is becoming seemingly ubiquitous. Whether in cellular phones, used as navigational aids in automobiles, or used as tools for recreational activities like hiking and fishing, GPS plays a role in the lives of most students. Although we provide only a cursory look at GPS technology, we feel that its incorporation into our exercise is valuable because many students will not get the opportunity to experience any direct interaction with GPS technology in an academic setting. For those students who may use GPS technology in later research or work related activities, we strongly advise that they seek additional training. …

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