Global Positioning System (GPS)

In Education

GPS Overview

Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S. owned utility that provides positioning, navigation, and timing information for everything from airplanes, ships, automobiles, & tractors, to smart phones (gps.gov). GPS is a satellite based navigation system of 24 satellites sent into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense and was made available to civilians in the 1980s (Martinez, Williams, Metoyer, Morris, & Berhane 2009). the 24 satellites orbit the earth sending signals to GPS receivers. Locations are determined by the amount of time the radio signals take to travel from the orbiting satellites to the GPS receivers, producing latitude and longitudinal coordinates. GPS is often used in conjunction with GIS (geographic information systems) to map the data collected with the GPS unit. GPS units offer a multitude of educational opportunities for students, especially outdoors, keeping students engaged while they collect real-time data.

GPS in the K-12 Environment

Hand-held GPS units can range from $100-$500+ per unit. The opportunities for education using GPS are endless and cover an array of subjects. Geocaching, described as a real-life treasure hunt, has become an increasingly popular use of GPS units, using GPS coordinates to locate items. In a 2010 article from Education Week, Katie Ash provides multiple uses of GPS in the classroom:

  • Elementary school students using GPS to plot water quality data on the streams that flow into Lake Ontario.
  • Use GPS to map all the trees on campus and record data such as size, & species
  • Map vacant houses in the community for a socioeconomic view
  • Use GPS to explore historical sites, highlighting events that took place in specific locations and compare what is located on the site currently
  • Use GPS to guide students to topographic features and have the students hypothesize as so what caused the features

Unique Learning Experience

Earth View, Art View, a 2004 article from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) by Lydia Dambekalns presented a more unique and artistic use of GPS. Dambekalns combined satellite imagery and the technique of silk painting and had students demonstrate their understanding of GPS technology in a visual and artistic way.


Image of silk batik painting of the Amazon Basin, by Lydia Dambekalns

Educaching, A GPS-Based Curriculum for Teachers
The beginner's guide to GPS (with subtitles)

Additional Resources:

GPS.gov Offers an overview of GPS, a free copy of the "How GPS Works" poster for teachers, GPS education pages of other government sites, and other teacher resources.


A Geospatial Scavenger Hunt Introduces GPS and outlines a GPS scavenger hunt for middle school students. Includes lesson preparation, marking waypoints, and an activity worksheet template.


Educators Explore How to Use GPS for Teaching An article from Education Week by Katie Ash, providing examples of how GPS can be used educationally and across the disciplines.


Earth View, Art View An article from NSTA WebNews Digest, that highlights Lydia Dembekalns' work with high school students, using GPS for art inspiration.