Google Maps and Google Earth In The Classroom

On: October 25, 2009
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About Chris Castiglione
Chris is an alumni of Universiteit van Amsterdam and the New Media M.A. Currently, he is the co-founder of One Month (, and the host of the On Books Podcast (


Longitude and latitude coordinates are like the words we use to tell a story and only gain substance when we use them in context. With a list of resources to help teachers, Google Maps and Google Earth are helping us tell stories better and bringing geographic data to life in ways that make traditional maps look more like decorations on the wall. This blog post shows how teachers around the world are using Google Maps/Earth in ways that support new competencies like visualization, simulation and play.

Original Paper (PDF): Google Maps & Google Earth In The Classroom

1. Literature

Google Lit Trips

Google Lit Trips is a site developed by English teacher Jerome Burg that experiments with teaching literature through maps. The site offers tips and tutorials for how teachers can integrate Google Earth into the curriculum of an English literature class. In addition there is a small library of existing KML files that other teachers have uploaded to share with the community. One example is a KML of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that overlays placemarkers on the map of the United States, each representing a moment in time on the epic journey that the Joad family takes from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. Additionally, the labels “Day 1, Day 2, etc.” provide a time based narrative of the trip and can be used to elicit discussion in the classroom. For example, “What events occurred between Day 2 and Day 3 and why did the family travel such a short distance?”

As the KML file is capable of storing questions and images, Google Lit Trips also sprinkles these types of questions and brief summaries from the book along the trail. Ultimately, Google Lit Trips engages the student through the use of simulation and critical thinking. Google Lit Trips, in line with a statement by communication professor Ian Bogost, provides students with a variety of different ways to observe and reconfigure the basic building blocks of the story.


Inspired by Google Lit Trips, sixth grade English teacher Tom Woodward used Google Maps to plot the novel Whirligig by Paul Fleischman. In the story the main character travels to the four corners of the U.S. The image below shows Woodward’s use of photography and narrative to capture the protagonist’s journey around the country. Students engage with the visualization by zooming in on certain placemarkers and revealing additional text and images that work to supplement the novel.

The Golden Compass Project

Juicy Geography is a site where educators can share ideas and resources that typically pertain to issues of geography, earth science or technology. One teacher featured on the site shared his 8th grade lesson plan using Google Earth and the Phillip Pullman novel Northern Lights. Before the 2007 release of the film adaptation (aka. The Golden Compass) this teacher had his students imagine they were scouting locations for the movie. The students were asked to plot placemarkers in Google Earth – each representing the most suitable location for key scenes in the book. This cross-curricular project challenged the students to use literature, geography and technical skills in their visual narration of the novel. It provided a problem for which there was a multiple amount of solutions, thereby sparking creativity. In addition, this type of open-ended speculation allowed the students to be expressive without fear of being wrong.

2. Biology

In a case study on the Google Earth Outreach site, Adelia Barber (a Ph. D at the University of California, Santa Cruz) has used Google Earth in her introductory biology class. She instructs the class how to interact and play with Google Earth from the perspective of an ecologist and engages the class with questions like:

Judging by the characteristics of the trees, what time of year do you think the picture was taken over Central Park in Manhattan?

The Tigris River flows through central Baghdad. Is there any vegetation growing on the islands and sand berms in the middle and on the edges of this river?

3. Physics

High school freshman teacher Dale Basler has found a way to teach physics with Google Maps.

Using local bus schedules, he had students race to map out the bus route and calculate the average speed of the bus. This project provided a game-like element in support of learning. The use of games to motivate learning is at the core of ‘play’. Games create simulated worlds that allow the student a space for trial and error, as well as the motivation to move forward with the game and solve problems.

Reflecting on his idea Basler commented, “The class was full of discussions about things like: which bus goes by which landmark or which bus is always late. The project made my lesson plan for the following week much simpler since I now established an example that everyone had an understanding of.”

4. History / Urban Development

The history icon allows anyone to browse satellite imagery from the past and make geographical comparisons. There is great potential to use these maps for teaching lesson about urban growth. The two images directly below show examples of urban development over a period of three years. The two images that follow show the World Trade Center in New York City on September 12th 2001 juxtaposed with a shot from the site on October 31, 2006. In this project, students are encouraged to make observations based on the historical imagery and then deduce reasons to support their claims.


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