We all remember how much fun it was participating in scavenger hunts when we were kids. Scavenger hunting is a game of discovery and skill where players have to find and collect hidden objects to collect a prize. The modern version of scavenger hunting uses the GPS technology in mobile devices to take scavenger hunting and the art of hide-and-seek to the next level — geocaching.
With geocaches (or caches) hidden at over 2 million locations around the world, drawing people of all ages and backgrounds to participate, geocaching is often called “the world’s largest scavenger hunt.”
Geocaching has been around since 2000 but, as mobile technology improves and becomes ubiquitous for people everywhere, new and exciting applications for the treasure-hunt game are being implemented more than ever before — from travel tours, to family reunions and everything in between. Geocaching is evolving from a hobby to a powerful learning learn. It should come as no surprise that innovative educators have been using geocaching to engage students in all subjects for years.
In September, Riverside School District incorporated geocaching courses into their fifth grade elementary school curricula. Leah Mowry-Singer, Lake Metroparks outdoor education specialist managing the geocaching program explains the benefits of educaching to The News Herald: “It builds appreciation for the outdoors, great for team building, teaches use of latitude and longitude lines and how to use a GPS properly.” (Riverside fifth-graders learn geocaching through Lake Metroparks)
Geocaching is particularly well-suited for STEM subjects. STEM educators are experimenting with geocaching with students in exciting, new ways that allow students to collaborate, inquire and engage in STEM lessons.
Incorporating geocaching in STEM learning offers teachers a compelling way (in addition to project-based curricula like PBIS) to transform the traditional classroom into a real-world, inquiry-based, exploratory learning environment that is student-centered and teacher-facilitated. It encourages self-discovery, independent and collaborative thinking, problem-solving and critical thinking skills that the Next Generation Science Standards (@OfficialNGSS) emphasize as being crucial to preparing students for 21st century STEM careers.
Although tackling geocaching with students may seem intimidating at first, there is a ton of great resources and support for first-timers. Maria McDonald, Education Specialist at Geocaching HQ, shared her first-time experience teaching middle school students how to geocache in an environmental science after-school program:
“While preparing our presentation, I got to thinking about children’s involvement with geocaching more generally. While one of the most fascinating elements of geocaching is its ability to be many different things to many types of people, children have a particular place in this game we cherish. First and foremost, kids love toys. If nothing else, geocache SWAG gives youngsters the opportunity to find fun toys. This often keeps them interested in a ‘treasure hunt’ before the more nuanced elements of the game can hold their attention. So how did the presentation with the dreaded middle schoolers go? Amazing. This was the greatest group of youngsters you could ever hope to geocache with. They were riveted by the geocaching presentation and remained two steps ahead of us with every engaging question. When it came time to leave the classroom and enter into the woods on this particularly rainy day, the kids charged ahead brimming with enthusiasm. The students worked together in pairs, one using a compass and the other piloting a GPS heading towards a staged geocache their teacher had placed specifically for them. This afternoon in the woods with youngsters reminded me that Geocaching really can be fun for all ages, even tweens when presented correctly.” — Maria McDonald (5 Tricks of the Trade for Geocaching with Kids)
Dr. Stan Polley teaches 2nd, 4th, and 7th grade science at Loveland Classical School in Loveland, Colorado. For the past two years, he has been using geocaching to inspire and engage his elementary students. His success should inspire any STEM educator to consider geocaching. Not only has he made geocaching a permanent part of STEM learning in his classes, but he also launched a geocaching program at his school.
Dr. Polley spoke with Geocaching.com about how he specifically uses geocaching in his classes to engage students in science:
“The first time I used geocaching in the classroom was two years ago, teaching 6th graders about constellations and the life cycle of stars. Our class sent out 4 Travel Bugs, and as they moved, students used online resources to determine what constellation would be visible at night from the exact coordinates of the geocache each TB was in.
I use geocaching in many ways, including an elaborate Classroom Competition and Academic Mystery Caching.
Classroom Competition: I split all of my classes into smaller science themed teams, and give students/teams opportunities to earn points. The team with the highest point value at the end of the year enjoys a decadent donut party. At the start of each year each team creates highly personalized team Geocache and team Travel Bugs. The number of cache finds, pictures logged, and TB miles traveled impact each teams point total. Students can also check-out GPS units to go find our class caches, as well as the 30+ Science/Math/Music Mystery Caches.
Academic Mystery Caches: Individual students can earn points for their team by solving scientific problems in the form of Mystery caches. There are currently 33 active Mystery Caches. The puzzle caches vary greatly in difficulty so that content can be differentiated for students at different ability levels. Physical copies of each puzzle are available in each classroom as well, so that students without consistent internet access have an opportunity to solve the puzzle and check-out a GPS to find the physical cache. By solving a Mystery Cache, students earn points for their teams regardless of whether they actually go to find the cache at the physical location.
These Mystery Cache puzzles are not homework, yet students ask me for new puzzles on a daily basis. In fact, a policy had to be established that they don’t have the physical copies of the puzzles out during other classes. That’s exactly what I want to see, ravenous learners.
I have expanded the Mystery Cache curriculum to include puzzles from multiple subjects, including Math, Music, and History. In collaboration with math teacher Lindsay Stahl, we have created dozens of supplemental academic opportunities for students of all different ability levels. Soon a series of caches will be published in collaboration with our Art, Latin, and English faculty. The types of Mystery caches will change through the year to align with the curriculum.” — Dr. Stan Polley (How Dr. Polley, “Educacher” Extraordinaire, Incorporates Geocaching in his Classroom)
As an expert in geocaching STEM classes, Dr. Polley’s advice to teachers who want to try geocaching is to be consistent. “The reason the classroom competition works is because I start each class with a very brief update on the team scores and any activity for each team’s travel bug, geocaches, and students who solved an Academic Puzzle,” explains Polley. This consistency means students feel their learning contributes to a larger goal.
There’s no shortage of great examples of geocaching in STEM classrooms these days. Even math teachers are experimenting with geocaching (Integrating Geocaching into the Mathematics Classroom / Mathematics, Geocaching and Fun). The possibilities for incorporating geocaching in a fun, easy way are limitless and would work well with PBL science curricula.
Tap into the geocaching education community at these sites for ideas, classroom examples and fellow teacher support:
- GPS and Geocaching in Education by Burt Lo (PDF)
- Geocaching HQ
- Geocaching Forums
- The Geocaching Blog
- The Science Spot GPS and GIS Lesson Plans
- Twitter Hashtag: #geocaching
- Twitter List of Geocachers
Geocaching opens a new, real-world experience for STEM students of all ages and backgrounds and could encourage students to become citizen scientists. The greatest proof of geocaching’s success in education is in the responses from students. One student says Dr. Polley’s geocaching program “made science class a class to look forward to every day.” This is what encouraging STEM disciplines is all about—getting students excited about learning all day, every day.
Geek out and cache-on!
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