Geocaching as an Instructional Activity

May 26, 2011

Routine is good. Routine is necessary. But perhaps the best part of having routines is breaking them. Novelty, it seems, is just as important as routine. I think it was the novelty of geocaching that led me to collaborate with Spanish teachers Sara Dunham and Ashley Watson, world history teacher Steph Noles, and AP Human Geography teacher Brian Callahan.

In familiar terms geocaching is like a scavenger hunt with a GPS device. It has become a popular activity. Check and you will probably discover that several caches (hidden containers of various sorts) are located within a few miles of your home. Typically, a person would record coordinates of a hidden cache into a GPS device, navigate to that location, and then use clues to locate the cache, which might contain a slip of paper to sign or a trinket to take.

Ms. Dunham and Ms. Watson
My geocaching collaboration began with Sara Dunham and Ashley Watson, who are always willing to take risks to keep their students engaged. The Spanish II students were learning to give commands in Spanish, and one of their goals was to give directions to a location using proper verb tenses and prepositions.  On the day of the activity, students received the following:

  • Instructions for the activity
  • A GPS device with five preset locations to which they would navigate
  • Instructions for working the GPS device
  • A set of hint sheets to help them locate each hidden cache
  • Rules for behavior, like stay away from roads and don’t cut through the school building

Groups of students scrambled around campus, locating each cache and signing sheets at each location. When they returned to the end of the 200 hall, they received a popsicle (all I got was a sunburn on my dome, but that’s my fault) and an assignment. Each group was charged with the task of writing directions that would help an unfamiliar visitor—one navigating without GPS—make his way to each position they had visited. The tough part: they had to write it in Spanish.

Ms. Noles
Stephanie Noles heard about the activity our Spanish teachers had developed and, having used similar activities to help her freshmen understand the challenges European explorers experienced, jumped at the opportunity to use GPS with her classes. Her students embarked on a similar activity, navigating from one location to another using the coordinates I recorded in their GPS devices. At each location the group withdrew a slip of paper describing an event their party experienced: “Your food supply has spoiled,” or “You found gold.”

These student explorers were charged with a different task—to create an explorer’s journal, a notebook that would help future explorers navigate an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar buildings, flora and fauna. It had to include what Ms. Noles dubbed the three Ds: distance, direction and description. Students sketched and wrote about what they saw, what happened to their team, and how they got from one location to the next.

Brian Callahan
Mr. Callahan teaches AP Human Geography. We asked his students to view the Rose High campus through their geography goggles, recording site information (latitude and longitude) and situation information (observations of surroundings) about each of three locations. As with the other classes, their locations were determined by coordinates preset into their GPS devices. At each location, they also searched for a cache and removed a poker chip, which they traded for a popsicle. While they ate, they collaborated on a one-paragraph analysis of the campus, employing several of the terms and concepts they studies throughout the semester.

Time is precious to teachers, so taking a day for this sort of activity must pay off. Geocaching is not the sort of activity that allows students to learn more information faster. It does allow them to learn better. Why?

Novelty: it’s not every day students get to lose themselves walking around campus searching for hidden caches. It’s new and different—it breaks the routine—and so it awakens the brain. It says to the brain (which retrieves semantic or language learning more efficiently when it is paired with an episodic memory): “you should remember this day.”

Physical activity: The part of the brain that controls movement works closely with the part of the brain that controls cognition. A physically active student has increased activity in her brain, and increased brain activity directed toward an academic objective equals better learning. In other words, geocaching gets the body moving, the blood pumping, the oxygen flowing, the brain grooving, and the learner learning.

Problem solving: When students (most of them, anyway) are passive recipients of information, they must perceive the information you teach as truly important to succeed in learning it. When their brains are involved in a problem solving activity like geocaching, however, they become active learners, seeking the information necessary to solve the problem and prioritizing that information—ideas, terms, skills—as useful for survival.

Best of all, geocaching has been fun. Students and teachers have enjoyed going outside, challenging their minds, and doing something new. I would enjoy collaborating with you on a geocaching activity next year.