How to Teach With Google Earth

Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2008

Jump down to: How Educators are Using Google Earth | Thoughts on Using Google Earth with Students | Google Earth as a Research Tool | Good Places to Get Data | Keeping Up with Google Earth Developments

Google Earth with National Snow and Ice Data Center data
Google Earth can be used:

  • to support hands-on inquiry by students in computer classrooms.
  • as a basis for homework assignments.
  • for dynamic presentations during class lectures.
  • for inquiry during class presentations.
  • to create imagery and maps for PowerPoint, Word, and other presentation tools.
  • as a data discovery, organization, and distribution tool for research projects.
  • to enrich discussion of an issue that arises spontaneously during an informal classroom discussion.

Google Earth offers the means to display geographic data from a wide variety of sources together in a geospatial context. This data includes imagery for the entire globe at varying resolutions that contains a great deal of interpretable visual information. Students can use it to find their homes, schools, and other locations that are familiar to them. They can make inferences by comparing familiar places to other locations. In addition, students can learn about the world through rich layers of mappable data offered by Google's server and a great deal of third-party content. They can also create and display their own data.

Google Earth Pro is available for free download on Google's Google Earth Versions page.

How Educators are Using Google Earth

Many examples of how educators are using Google Earth are documented on the web. Following are some of those examples, and some articles.

  • The Complete List of Google Earth Activities available from SERC contain wide variety of topics and useful KML data files on topics from glaciers to structural geology to stream characteristics.
  • Peter Selkin has written an excellent article on Google Earth and Geoscience Education.
  • At Middlebury College in Vermont, the Food Mapping project is helping students understand how their meals relate to the Earth system. They can trace the ingredients for several types of meals back to their sources.
  • Investigating wind energy with Google Earth engages students in assessing the suitability of a site for a wind farm after considering arguments for and against using the site for that purpose.
  • Juicy Geography has a lesson on Modeling sea level change on the Gold Coast of Australia.
  • Real World Math has lesson plans for pre-college classes that use Google Earth to teach mathematics.
  • Google Earth can support field studies by importing GPS data that has been saved in GPX format. GPS Tracks are represented as paths in Google Earth, and waypoints become placemarks.

Thoughts on Using Google Earth with Students

  • Google Earth data is in the form of KML (Keyhole Markup Language), which is an XML-based text format that can be edited directly in a text editor. Data created in Google Earth can be saved in KML format or in a zipped format known as KMZ. Because KML is a text format, spreadsheets can be used to create KML from data in tabular format provided that it contains latitude and longitude information in a systematic manner. Learning to edit or create KML directly outside Google Earth allows more flexibility than being restricted to the Google Earth user interface to create the data. To learn more about KML, see KML Tutorial.
  • When exploring places in Google Earth, students should make it a standard practice to look for points in the layers that in that location. They should learn to look for relationships between information from varied subject areas in order to develop an interdisciplinary thinking perspective.
  • Prior to conducting a school field trip for any purpose, educators should add value to the experience by enriching the students' geographic perspective of the landscape they are about to traverse. The students should be given an opportunity to explore the route on Google Earth in order to develop a conceptual geographic context for the landscape that they are about to travel. They should be encouraged to investigate layers that contain information about places along the route.
  • Sketchup can be used as a companion program to Google Earth for creating, modifying and sharing 3D models of buildings, bridges, and other structures. The models can be added as data for display in a geographic context in Google Earth's 3D Viewer. Sketchup is available as discounted educational rates.
  • See the Google Earth User Guide for information about the techniques of using Google Earth.
  • Formative assessment is an essential part of the educational process. In the computer laboratory, the instructor can observe the students directly as they engage in activities. Discussions during and after the activities provide constant feedback to the instructor, and student responses can reveal whether the students are learning what is intended. During the activities, the discussion can be modified toward mitigating any problems in understanding that are discovered during the discussion. If any of the difficulties in achieving the learning goals are caused by shortcomings of the instructional materials, they can should be modified to address these problems for the benefit of future classes. Instructors who use these activities in their classes should be provided with a means of communicating with each other, so that they can use each other's experiences with their classes to upgrade the teaching materials. This information should also be communicated to the groups who host the materials on the web or otherwise disseminate it.
  • Students should be expected to hand in the results of their work either electronically or in hard copy form. If the activity involved creating any KMZ files, they should be submitted electronically so they can be viewed in Google Earth. This can also enable the instructor to determine whether the learning goals have been met.
  • SERC's Assessment pages provide a variety of examples on effective strategies.
  • Google allows non-commercial personal use of the images created from Google Earth, provided that copyrights and attributions are preserved. Works created by an agency of the United States government are public domain at the moment of creation. This means that those images can be freely modified, redistributed and used for commercial purposes.

Google Earth as a Research Tool

In addition to its value for classroom education, Google Earth is an effective tool for making data available for research purposes. For example:

  • The United States Geological Survey distributes stream gage data in KML format on the Google Earth Streamflow KML Files page of its WaterWatch site.
  • The Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy makes a favorability map and temperature gradient data available for viewing in Google Earth at the bottom of its GIS Regional Spatial Data Download page.
  • OpenTopography Data are available for download as KMZ files.
  • The National Snow and Ice Data Center distributes Google Earth files of snow and ice extents, mostly in form of overlays, on its NSIDC Data on Google Earth page.
  • The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center provides data on volcanoes on its Volcano Monitoring Using Google Earth site.
  • Nearly every year since 2007 there have been sessions at the American Geophysical Union meeting that included or were dedicated to geobrowsers such as Google Earth. You can find more about the contents by searching the past programs.

USGS Stream Gage data for Kauai

Good Places to Get Data for Educational Use

Keeping in Touch with Google Earth Developments

Google Earth is periodically updated to incorporate new functionality, and people are continually developing new data and finding new uses for Google Earth. The following sites are good sources of information about these developments, and it is a good idea to visit them regularly.

  • Google Earth Help Community
  • Google Earth Hacks offers forums, news, data, and other services for Google Earth users.
  • The Google Earth Blog by Frank Taylor offers Google Earth news, commentary, and tips. The news often consists of notifications of imagery updates, for example. Frank is currently sailing around the world and using Google Earth to guide and document his trip.
  • Stefan Geens offers the Ogle Earth blog, which provides news about virtual globes, with a primary focus on Google Earth.
  • Google Earth Design is a blog that offers advice on how to use Google Earth, tips on map design, and commentary on the design of Google Earth KMZ data that is available on the web.
  • An effective means of keeping up with Google Earth developments is to attend or consult the literature or web content for meetings. Regularly occurring events that focus on geobrowsers are offered at meetings of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union.

This infant mortality map includes a control panel and was developed using the Google Earth API. The map is available on the Thematic Mapping Blog.