Teaching GPS Technology in Nature Education Programs

by Virginia Bourdeau

I'm an ecologist and outdoor educator by training and profession. On my first day of work at the Oregon 4-H Center in 1985, the most sophisticated technology in the office was an electric typewriter. If you wanted a copy of your document, you used carbon paper. Over the years, I've learned to use evolving versions of computers and software systems, photo copiers, and fax machines. Thanks to my daughter's tutelage, I can retrieve the voice mail from my cell phone. But, I am not anyone's idea of an "earlier adopter." My husband has been known to tell me to drag myself into the 21st Century.

So when my supervisor appeared at camp in the fall of 2004 with a "gift" of 28 shiny new GPS units, I greeted him with limited enthusiasm. He, of course, was very excited about this innovative new program delivery for 4-H that he was funding. His idea was for me to design lessons and train 4-H staff and volunteers to support technology education at the 4-H Center and in the local counties. All I could think was it was a good thing I had a few months until our spring field season started.

Creating an Educational Experience at Camp

Our GPS lessons begin with a very basic map and compass lesson. It is important for campers to understand the basis for the data and functions of the GPS units. A globe and four small flashlights are used to illustrate the satellite system. Four campers assist with this demonstration intersecting the beams of four flashlights over the 4-H Center's intersecting longitude and latitude on the globe. Next, campers find the same longitude and latitude on a local topographic map. When the compass directions and map reading are understood, we move outside to introduce the GPS units.

Each camper is given a unit with instructions to put the cord around his/her neck. The units are turned on, and campers watch as satellite signals are acquired. This can take some time, especially if there is cloud cover. An activity location with a clear view of the sky, such as a large meadow, is essential. When all the GPS units indicate they are "ready to navigate," the next step is to calibrate the compass. Campers learn to move through the display screens, called pages, to locate the navigation page. A handout assists campers to follow the steps to calibrate the compass.

Still working as a group, campers are asked to proceed to the GPS units page where they can enter a waypoint in the location screen. The units have a drop-down menu with a small numerical key pad that allows campers to enter the longitude and latitude of a given waypoint. They will need to master use of the "click stick" on the GPS unit to enter waypoints. This tends to be easier for youth than adult learners to master.

For the introductory activity, all campers enter the same waypoint. When the waypoint is entered in the unit, the GOTO feature is selected. This automatically transfers the unit to the navigation page with a compass and a direction of travel arrow pointing to the waypoint. Before the group moves off, they select a buddy to walk with and are reminded to stay on the trails to avoid contact with poison oak. The pairs of campers eventually all arrive at the amphitheater.

In the first year of the program, we set up a waypoint trail of geocaches. Bright orange beach sand pails were used for the geocaches to assist campers to locate them even on days when the unit's accuracy was low. Each team of campers was given a team name and a starting waypoint clue that took them to their first geocache. When they arrived at that geocache, they took their team's next clue out of the bucket and entered the waypoints into their units. This proceeded until all teams arrived back at the amphitheater— the final waypoint for all teams.

In our second summer, we decided to combine teaching GPS technology with an activity to teach campers about some local tree species. We created a Tree Identification Waypoint Trail. A set of handouts gives the coordinates of some selected trees, along with tree identification information and pictures. Trees were selected to be relatively easy to locate even on days when the GPS unit's accuracy was low. At each tree, campers are asked to perform a task such as take a bark rubbing, draw a seed or cone, or draw the outline of a leaf. Campers always do the activity in twos or threes so they are not alone at any time as they move around camp. Each set of handouts has the trees presented in a different order. This helps minimize teams of campers arriving at the same tree at the same time or following another camper team, rather than entering the waypoint coordinates in their own units. The repetition of entering the coordinates into the GPS units to locate each tree builds the camper's confidence to use the units for real tasks.

Advancing to GPS Mapping

Older learners enjoy learning to use the GPS units to make simple maps. In this activity, campers practice saving waypoints for the specific locations they want to map. The Zoom In feature of the map page is used to scale the map to show a route campers can walk in the activity. Before beginning this lesson, the activity leader should make sure that the GPS units do not have any stored waypoints, tracks, or routes from previous activities.

Waypoints are saved in the GPS unit on the same page that the waypoints are entered in the introductory activity. When the location page is opened, the coordinates for that specific location can be saved. Campers can name the location they are saving by highlighting the number given to the waypoint by the GPS unit. If all the previous waypoints have been deleted, this number will show as 001. A drop-down menu is provided that includes an alphabet and number pad. We generally start this lesson at our swimming pool. Campers are asked to enter the letters p-o-o-l using the keypad and the click stick. They can also change the GPS unit's standard map symbol by opening a drop-down menu where they can select a specific symbol for their waypoint. If all these entries are saved correctly in the GPS unit, campers will find the word "pool" and the map symbol they selected displayed on the unit's map page.

Campers work in teams to save several more waypoints and then return to an agreed-upon location. If time remains in the lesson, they can exchange GPS units and use the GOTO feature to retrace another team's map.

For camps wishing to make use of GIS (geographic information systems), saved waypoints can be used to make site maps using specific computer software. Campers generally are satisfied with the maps they create on their units. We have used a software interface and computer to make "you are here" site maps for our buildings and some outdoor locations. We will begin to use GIS to assist in planning the on-site forestry management in 2007.

Teaching the Old Educator New Tricks

I have learned to be a fan of GPS technology. The lesson which combines the GPS units with a tree activity has campers, who would never sign up for a tree ID class, learning a few trees—almost by accident.

We have used these lessons with campers from fourth grade up. We even did a lesson for our Board of Directors when they had their summer meeting at camp! The speed of the units in locating satellites and the changeable accuracy make them difficult to use with campers below the fourth-grade level. For safety, the GPS activity should be set up in an area which can be easily supervised, and campers should travel in teams.

GPS units generally come preprogrammed with maps. In addition, they may include sun and moon phase data, calendars, calculators, and other features. These features may support other types of on-site camp programming and trip/travel and survival training camps as well.

Camper evaluations indicate this class is meeting its goals. One camper wrote, "I learned a lot in your class. I think everyone should know the things you teach in your class because anyone can get lost but only some can become unlost." I'm glad I learned to use this new technology and can give campers the skills to become "unlost."

Reference
Hurn, J. (1989). GPS: A Guide to the Next Utility. Sunnyvale, CA: Trimble Navigation.

What Is GPS Anyway?
"GPS" is short for Global Positioning System. The system is not just the hand-held field unit or the computer in your car. GPS includes a constellation of twenty-four satellites orbiting the Earth at a very high altitude. The U.S. government, primarily the Department of Defense, has invested over $12 billion to build this satellite system (Hurn 1989).

The satellites send radio waves that allow the receiver in the GPS unit to determine the distance from the unit to the satellites using the formula: Distance = speed of light (186,000 miles per second) X time. GPS receivers are able to determine time through decipherment of a code that is sent by both the satellite and the receiver at the same time. The difference between the time that the receiver sends the code and receives the code is the time that it takes to get from the satellite to the receiver.

Timing accuracy between the satellites and the earthbound receivers is extremely important. Each satellite is equipped with four atomic clocks, the most stable and accurate time reference available, which cost about $100,000 each (Hurn 1989). A standard GPS unit includes a moderately accurate clock. To eliminate any timing offset between the extreme accuracy of the satellite’s clocks and the GPS units, the units must locate and receive information from multiple satellites. Most GPS units need to be receiving information from a minimum of four satellites before they tell the user they are "ready to navigate."

When a GPS unit is ready to navigate, it will display its current location as latitude and longitude; for example, Location: N 45°00.213, W 123°08.750. Remember your geography lessons? Lines of latitude run parallel to the equator. N 45° is the latitude reading. Lines of longitude run north to south and intersect the poles. W 123° is the longitude reading. The intersection of the latitude and longitude lines is displayed on the screen as the unit’s location.

The two primary ways to use a GPS unit is to either (1) store longitude and latitude coordinates, called waypoints, when moving from one location to another along a trip or trail, or (2) to enter waypoints into the unit and use the unit’s "GOTO" feature to get travel directions. The units can also tell you your current altitude and include a compass and a trip computer.

Readers may be familiar with using navigation units in cars, which use GPS technology and electronic maps, or with a GPS recreation activity called geocaching. Geocaching is a popular outdoor recreation activity which uses waypoints, provided on Internet sites by participants. There is a specific etiquette for each geocache. Visitors to a geocache may be asked to sign a book or leave a trinket, in exchange for taking a trinket. An Internet search will provide interested persons a wealth of information about this activity.

When shopping for GPS units, be sure you know the accuracy of each brand under consideration. In the performance specifications of the owner's manual of the units I was using, it stated GPS Accuracy: < 15 meters (49 ft.), 95% typical. A footnote said, "Subject to accuracy degradation to 100 m 2 DRMS under the U.S. Department of Defense imposed Selective Availability program." This means not all satellites are available for civilian use all the time.

This level of accuracy is fine when the user is locating a geocache. However, on "camp scale" it is a drawback that activity leaders must understand. The 4-H Center’s property is over 300 acres, but the main lodging and program sites occupy less than twenty acres. Any activity in this size area will necessarily have waypoints in close proximity.

Virginia D. Bourdeau is the Oregon State University 4-H youth development specialist for Camping and Natural Science Education. Prior to joining 4-H, she worked in camping for YWCA Camp Westwind, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's Hancock Field Station, and Winema Girl Scouts' Camp Low Echo. She is a standards visitor and co-standards chair for ACA, Oregon Trail. She can be reached at mombear@proaxis.com.

Originally published in the 2007 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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