GETSI Teaching Materials >Measuring the Earth with GPS > Unit 1: Collecting GPS Data
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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Unit 1: Collecting GPS Data

Karen M. Kortz (Community College of Rhode Island)
Jessica J. Smay (San Jose City College)

Summary

GPS data can measure vertical and horizontal bedrock motion caused by a variety of geologic processes, such as plate movement and the changing amount of water and ice on Earth's surface. In this unit, students will learn the basics of how GPS works and how to read GPS time-series data.

Learning Goals

Unit 1 Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will be able to explain how high-precision GPS data are interpreted
  2. Students will calculate the horizontal speed and direction (within a reference frame) of a GPS station using data provided as time-series graphs

Unit 1 Teaching Objectives

  • Cognitive: Promote an understanding of the relationship between bedrock motion and resulting time-series graphs; give students a description of how high-precision GPS stations work and have them apply that knowledge to considerations when installing a station
  • Behavioral: Promote skills development in reading and interpreting bedrock GPS time-series data and understanding its relationship to reference frames; provide a framework for students to approach data reading and interpretation to solve problems like a scientist; give students opportunities to identify trends and calculate rates
  • Affective: Encourage a level of comfort with using quantitative skills to solve problems; encourage an appreciation of the usefulness of GPS data to society

Context for Use

The content for Unit 1 is appropriate for introductory geology, historical geology, oceanography, environmental science, and other geoscience courses; sophomore-level courses in which geodesy is being introduced; or non-geoscience courses where the nature and methods of science are being investigated. Unit 1 activities can be used in small- to medium-enrollment classes and adapted to serve large-enrollment classes. They are designed to be flexible in their context and can be executed in lecture and lab settings as an in-class activity or the beginning of a collaborative lab exercise.

In the Measuring the Earth with GPS module, this unit can be used as an introduction to one or more of the other units by developing skills and an understanding of the GPS data that students have the opportunity to then build on in subsequent units.

For some courses, it is also possible to just use the presentation about GPS from Unit 1 as an introduction to one of the other units and then go straight on to a later unit without fully doing the Unit 1 exercise. This would probably be a good idea only if your students have more experience with time-series and graphs.

Description and Teaching Materials

Introductory Lecture (15–30 minutes)

This brief interactive lecture introduction provides context for Measuring the Earth with GPS by introducing students to:

  • How GPS works with Think-pair-share questions and ConcepTest questions
  • Think-pair-share asking students to think about how studying GPS motion can be useful to society
  • Brief directions for the Jigsaw activity, below
  • Think-pair-share questions asking students to make observations and interpretations about GPS time-series graphs

Slides: Unit 1 Introductory slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 11.9MB Jul11 19)

Unit 1 Introductory slides
Click to view

Optional Introductory GPS Handout for students:

Unit 1 Introduction to GPS Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 4.2MB Jul9 19)
Unit 1 Introduction to GPS Handout PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 15.3MB Jul9 19)

  • This two-page document can help students record their notes on how GPS works.

For additional details on how GPS works: See the majors-level Introduction to GPS presentation (majors-level) (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 30.6MB Nov11 19) from GPS, Strain, and Earthquakes > Unit 3: Getting started with GPS data

Introduction to GPS presentation
Click to view

Jigsaw (45–60 minutes)

In this activity, students will use the Jigsaw technique to learn to quantitatively interpret GPS time-series graphs. Students initially form three teams, each team specializing in one of the following: reference frames, direction of motion, or speed of motion. After students complete a short, one-page handout about their specialization, they re-form into groups, with each group member representing one of the teams. In their new groups, students apply their knowledge to interpret a GPS time-series graph and calculate the speed the station is moving. Each group can work with data from the same GPS station, or different groups can each work with data from different stations. Data are provided for eight stations, although instructors (or students) can easily download graphs from the PBO Network Monitoring website for nearby stations if that is of interest. Note: there are a lot more stations in the western US.
Accessing PBO GPS data: 1-page info sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 308kB Jun17 18)

Student activity handout:

Teaching Notes and Tips

General

  • Be sure to emphasize the "coolness" of knowing how the GPS in their phones works. That gets their attention. Also make sure they understand the math they are practicing in this unit is important in other units coming later so they see the reason behind it.

Jigsaw

  • Eight data sets from example GPS stations are included in the instructor version of the handout. Other stations can be found at the PBO Network Monitoring website, and it is easy to download graphs in the same format.
  • Instructors can build on this activity by having student compare their results of different stations across the country. This can lead to a discussion of tectonic plate movement.
  • Instructors can also follow up this activity by showing the GPS Velocity Viewer, which can display vectors illustrating station movement. Students can compare their stations to what is displayed. You are also able to change reference frames.

Assessment

Formative Assessments

Unit 1 can be assessed formatively by using some of the questions as prompts for discussions. In addition, if the students are working in class or lab on the questions, the instructor can circulate and listen to student conversations and answer questions to ensure that the desired learning is occurring.

Summative Assessments

The Jigsaw group activity can be used as the summative assessment for this unit (Unit 1: Collecting GPS Data), if desired. Instructors can also have students complete the group activity using a different GPS data set than what they used during the Jigsaw activity.

References and Resources

Additional Resources for Instructors:

  • GPS stations with graphs can be found at: PBO Network Monitoring
  • The GPS Velocity Viewer displays vectors illustrating station movement
  • More information about reference frames can be found in additional details in the GPS Velocity Viewer Reference Frames
  • Here is a key relating GPS graphs and vector direction
  • Here is a discussion of Time-Series Plots
  • Additional learning resources and modules for GPS can be found on UNAVCO's Tutorials and Handouts page
  • This website give GPS basics


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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »