Using Google Earth in the classroom

Since the earliest days of Google Earth, many have viewed it as an amazing tool to use in the classroom – and they’re right! We first showed some educational uses for Google Earth more than five years ago, and since then we’ve seen great uses from Duke University and StrataLogica, among others.
Today we’re looking at GEteach, a site developed by 9th-grade Geography teacher Josh Williams. The site uses the Google Earth Plug-in to give you quick access to a wide variety of information such as the CIA Factbook, population densities, and various other human and physical geographic overlays.


The site also includes a “Two Earth” mode to allow you to view different layers side-by-side, similar to AnotherEarth. This is a great way to show students how natural aspects of the earth can affect human behavior, such as comparing the “vegetation” index to the “population density”, as seen here:

I asked Josh for more info about how the site got started, and he came through with the full story of the site, shared below:

My major is Geography and like most people I’ve always been intrigued with Google Earth. For the past 6 years I’ve been trying to find ways to incorporate Google Earth in my 9th grade geography classroom. At first I scoured the internet for kml files that worked with my curriculum, but very little seemed to fit. Three years ago I started creating Earth’s with simple placemarks of images and maybe some text within the balloons. I later found an interesting script allowing me to export ESRI shapefiles into kml. This was the turning point that led to what you see today. My first useful Google Earth file was an Earth where I incorporated CIA Factbook data into balloons. I later created dozens of thematic Earths using the same process. My students currently use improved versions of these thematic maps to observe, understand, and predict levels of development for regions and countries.

Two years ago I stumbled across NASA’s Earth Observatory website and discovered how they wrapped their images around an Earth. I then used that process and NASA’s content to show mostly physical geographic patterns and processes. The images from NASA like blue marble, average land temperature, plant growth, sea temperatures, and topography are great at showing the students Earth/Sun relationships, climate controls, and physical processes impacted on population distributions (NASA Earth Observatory has a nice population density map).

Over the past year and a half I have been trying to put all of these Earths together in a package teachers and students could use. I quickly realized that creating a website using Google Earth api would be the most efficient way to control and distribute the content. Over that past year I have learned a little html, JavaScript, css, and jquery. I started first with embedding a webpage with Google Earth gadget files. As I learned more about html and JavaScript I ditched the gadget and created simple webpages with using the api. Nystrom then came by our school to demo Stratalogica (a great Google Earth tool for education). I thought I was going to be able to stop developing my webpage, but realized that I could not get my content on their page. After seeing Stratalogica, I spoke with my father and told him I thought we could create a really cool website available to everyone. We spent a year building geteach. The Google Earth side was pretty easy. We just went to the Google Earth api site and combined several of their demos like “Hello Earth,” “China Syndrome,” “Fetch kml,” ect… Creating and incorporating menus, iframe shims, creating and replacing iframes to change with the selected Earth (they hold the Earth’s descriptions, map legends/keys, and credits), and creating a really cool array were more challenging and took a while to learn; especially because my father and I had to learn or relearn most of this. Today’s is really the 4th version. The first version had a very 2004 look and feel to it. It had ugly generic drop down menus, check boxes, and radio buttons. Version one only had about 6 Earths, but the core functions like choosing different Earths, fetching an Earth, and controlling the left or right earth were all present and working. Version two replaced all the generic forms and buttons with jquery ui buttons. We added an array which allowed more Earths. Version four changed from a table based to a div based html document that allowed the width to adjust with differing resolutions. However, the most time consuming aspect in creating is attempting to make it look similar across browsers.

This is the first school year where my students and I have extensively used the website. The first lesson we used for was Earth/Sun relations. This is mostly me using Google Earth’s grid layer and sun feature to show the solstice and equinox. I then click to the multi-earth and demonstrate how temperature and vegetation is impacted by this relationship. The students’ next big lesson is identifying climate regions and the climate controls. Here the students use the climate regions Earth on the left side and change the right Earth to help develop an understanding of what climate controls like elevations, wind currents, ocean currents, latitude, position on the continent, etc. are responsible for the temperature and precipitation patterns. Next the students use level of development indicators like life expectancy, GDP per capita, infant mortality rate, etc. to predict standard of living for regions and countries. Our district curriculum blends regional with conceptual geography. Therefore, with every unit/region (every 3 to 4 weeks) either my students, time permitting, or I will use to observe physical and human patterns of the new region and start making spatial observations and peaking curiosity for the unit. It is really a lot of fun and truly why I created this site in the first place. My goal is for students to expend some of their bandwidth on spatial observations, understandings, and predicting. When they ask, “Mr. Williams…why is..?” I know I have them where I want them.

It’s a phenomenal way to use Google Earth in a classroom setting, and he has done an awesome job with this site. Great work, Josh!

About Mickey Mellen

Mickey has been using Google Earth since it was released in 2005, and has created a variety of geo-related sites including Google Earth Hacks. He runs a web design firm in Marietta, GA, where he lives with his wife and two kids.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.