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Exploring our World Using Handheld GPS Devices
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Exploring our World Using Handheld GPS Devices

By Toni Decman, Instructional Coach, Katy ISD and Casandra Henry, Science Teacher and
Department Head, Katy ISD


When discussing the benefits of learning from the outdoors Hartley Banack, a lecturer at UBC’s department of curriculum and pedagogy states “Experiential learning is our primary source of knowledge. Experiential learning is something that happens in the ‘real world.’ And the ‘real world’ is not in the classroom” (Gallagher, CBC News). When the idea for a field-trip lesson was first proposed to me, I thought about my outdoor experiences as a child, how those experiences had matured into a love of teaching science. As I began to research how to foster those feelings within children through field based learning I found that Randall Fitzgerald had studied the feelings of students towards science after field based learning and found that  “students in a field-based learning group rated science and math studies in a more favorable light than did their counterparts in a traditional setting”. With that in mind, my department chair, Casandra Henry, and I began to put a plan into action.

“Every excursion should have a well-defined purpose and well-defined expected outcomes” (Project Learning Tree). With this in mind, Casandra and I rummaged through some old projects and created our field trip. We created a project in which the students would use GPS devices to locate trees.  The trees would be used to create a dichotomous key portfolio. The project requirements included:
    •  The student would collect and identify 10 different leaves from different trees.
    •  The students would also need to collect data about each leaf specimen/tree i.e. height and
            girth measurements, observations of the habitat, proper identification of the tree and a bark
    •  The students would create a dichotomous key for the 10 different trees

Now began the hard part, the planning. We knew that setting the students free to roam about the park with GPS units and saying “go find your tree” would not get us where we wanted to be. So we divided our plans into three activities.

Activity 1: Preparation:

All students received a packet of information pertaining to leaves and their attributes. It showed drawings of alternate and opposite branching, compound and single leaves, and single and clustered needles. Additionally, each student was provided with several links to websites that focused on the identification of trees through an examination of leaves.
This lesson was done as the “Elaborate” portion of the 5E model. This meant that the students had already “Explored” the differences or variations of organisms and the “Explain” portion of the lesson had been addressed.  

We knew that we wanted the students to break into groups while at the park, but we wanted to make sure that those groups worked well together. While in the classroom, the students were separated into different groups. They discussed expectations of roles while in the field. The goal was for everyone to know his or her role and expectation when we arrived at the park.
The day before the trip, we created a trial run activity.  In this activity, the students received instruction on using the GPS devices. They were then required to demonstrate an understanding of the operation of the GPS devices by going outside and finding three locations on the campus.

Additionally, the students received instruction and practice time on how to find the height and girth of a tree.

To prepare the park for the event, the Secondary Science Coordinator for our district, Cathy Harter, graciously offered to help me to program the coordinates for five different trees within the park into thirty GPS units. Each tree was chosen based on its characteristics and differences from the other trees. The selected trees were Loblolly Pine, Post Oak, Yaupon Holly, Water Oak and Eastern Red Cedar. Each tree was marked with either a flag or yellow tape to designate it from others. This was important as the GPS may take the students to a cluster of trees, but finding the exact one may not be possible using only the technology.

Activity 2: Day of the Trip

Once the students arrived at the park, each was given a GPS unit with the previously marked coordinates and a cheat sheet, designed to assist them through the data-collecting process. Additionally, each group received a plastic bag that contained crayons for tree rubbings and six-foot measuring tapes. Each group also received a one-meter stick. The students broke into their groups and began locating the trees using their GPS units. To identify the correct trees, students were required to record physical features. After locating all of the marked trees, the groups of students were allowed to select leaves from unmarked trees to be used in their projects as well.

While outside, each of the groups was to stay separated. The students within each group were to work together to find leaves from different trees. The students were required to have at least one tree bark rubbing and a leaf from each tree. The students were given the option to use their iPhone and iPad to take pictures of the trees to address any allergy concerns.

As an aside, we were certain to involve several adults to assist with monitoring the students.  They functioned as chaperons and assisted with student questions. Prior to unleashing the students on the park, we had the adults exchange phone numbers in the event of an emergency.

Activity 3: Pulling it all Together

So what did our children learn in addition to the objective? They learned that there is a world out there that is worth exploring and that science is an enjoyable field of study. We were happily surprised that the projects came flooding in the door prior to the due date. As the children presented their projects, they discussed in detail the characteristics of their trees and their various methods of identification. Most importantly, as our new seventh graders get closer to the time of their field trip, last year’s students build the anticipation by their declaring their love of learning science from their own field trip experiences.



Fitzgerald, R. (2002). Field Studies in Geography and Environmental Science as a Vehicle for Teaching Science and Mathematics Skills. Retrieved December 16, 2015, from
Gallagher, M. (2015, April 16). UBC education expert says kids benefit from learning outdoors - British Columbia - CBC News. Retrieved December 16, 2015, from
Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2015, from

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