Travelling with the Explorers

I write quite often about Google Earth (it’s a terrific program, I can’t help it), and I often have ideas running through my head about how to use it, and I’m glad to read that other teachers are as well. Quentin D’Souza, a longtime educator, firm believer in educational technology, and author of the Teaching Hacks blog has outlined a project using Google Earth that I hope to do with my fifth graders this year.

Google EarthAlthough Mr. D’Souza pulls from Canadian standards for Social Studies, they align themselves quite well with U.S. standards when it comes to studying the first European explorers to set foot in North America. Most students in 5th or 6th grade study these explorers, learning what their motives for exploration were, what dangers or obstacles they had to overcome, but most importantly, how they sailed through largely uncharted waters to reach their destinations. That’s where Google Earth comes in; just as the original explorers had to plot out their travels carefully, students can use Google Earth to carefully plot out the routes that many of the explorers took, adding push pins at points of interest to describe different parts of the voyages.

The lesson plan is outlined here, entitled North American Explorers, and also includes ideas for using a wiki to collaborate on notes and research, but I think the Google Earth piece could stand alone if a teacher wished to have the students research independently. Learners could place push pins from the explorer’s points of deparute in Europe, stops along the way, and even places they made land fall in the new world, creating a narrative as you traveled the path. Using the path tool students could then connect the points, using different colors for the “trip there” and the “trip home.” Alright, so you need to purchase the Google Earth Plus for access to the path tool, but for just $20 it’s a well spent classroom expense.

These are just a few “tip of the iceberg” ideas that I had while reading his post. He has a lot more ideas for using Google Earth, so read them for yourself and see what kind of ideas you have.


  1. No choice to buy the path tool for the poor, neglected mac. The only option I seem to have is to add it by hand. I don’t think most teachers are up for that and few students.

    I did a version of the explorer activity you describe in five 6th grade classrooms. It went well except for the saving- which they did fine but often wouldn’t realize they did it. Odd.

    I’d stress teachers can make this boring. It should be about exploring and using the tool rather than an exercise in copying notes.

    I’d also really advise that students get a chance to play with the application before expecting serious work out of them. It’s just too tempting.

  2. FYI – Google has an offer for educators for the pro version-

    Google Earth Education Program
    The Google Earth Education Program offers schools and districts a free subscription to Google Earth Pro ($400 annually). Many schools around the world are expanding their horizons with this program. Prospective schools and districts are encouraged to contact Dennis Reinhardt, Google Earth Education Director, at

  3. Tom: Great points about allowing the students to play with the program before applying it to your lessons. Even after using the program last year with my sixth graders for several weeks, they still wanted to just have some time to go and look at their houses, or zoom over our city, and that was after I had already given them nearly an entire class period to do the same thing at the beginning of the year.

    Too true about making the project boring. I was borderline on that one last year as it was my first year really using the tool in the classroom, and found myself relying on teacher-driven projects more often than I would have liked.

    Quentin: Thanks for the info about the Google Earth Education Program. I’m assuming the $400 covers the entire district, not just one building. I’d definitely have to generate some buzz for this program in our classrooms before pushing for an expenditure like that though. Good incentive, especially to have access to all of the tools.

  4. Awesome find Steve! Now I just have to convince my tech staff here to install Beta 4 after just finishing the installation of version 3 🙂

  5. Hi Ben,

    Yes – The Google Earth Educator program gives you a license to run Google Earth Pro on your network, but best to confirm with Den at Google. The license is for a year. I’m not sure if you do local or network installs at your school district. We have Google Earth on as a Network install and it makes it much easier to manage – 20,000 workstations at our board.

    The new version of Google Earth is the best upgrade I ever made, so be sure to get access to the new tools as mentioned, as well as the ability to make network links.

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