Incorporating GPS Technology with a Campus Geology Walking Tour

Incorporating GPS Technology with a Campus Geology Walking Tour

Weiss, Daniel J


A university campus geology walking tour can provide students with the opportunity to examine a variety of geologic features as well as rock, mineral, and fossil specimens contained in building stones, monuments, and rock gardens. By incorporating handheld GPS receivers into the tour, the students are given the additional experience of using a relatively new technology as part of their field activity. The two combine well, and we find that students enjoy both the opportunity to apply knowledge they have learned in the classroom and the opportunity to gain a basic understanding and appreciation of GPS technology.


In disciplines such as the earth sciences, including field study in the curriculum adds value to students’ experiences by exposing them to applied uses for classroom content. The idea of a campus field trip or walking tour as a means to this end has been used at several universities as a teaching tool (Switzer, 1995; Francek, 1996). This is particularly true in the geologic sciences, which often use campus walking tours to give students the opportunity to investigate geologic features as well as rocks, minerals, and fossil specimens in real world environments (Hess and Meierding, 1972; Witzke, 1984; Kemp, 1992; Hurst and Herrstrom, 1997; Jacobson and McKenzie, 1998).

We have developed a campus walking tour for introductory physical geology students which incorporates global positioning system (GPS) receivers. Our primary focus is to give students the opportunity to explore geology in their everyday surroundings. The secondary focus of the exercise is to introduce GPS to an audience with little or no experience using this technology. In our exercise, students use GPS in two ways to mimic real world usage. In the first part of the exercise, students record the positions of geologic features or specimens they are examining as a pair of latitude and longitude coordinates, since most students are familiar with this system. In the second part of the exercise, the students use the tracking functionality of the receiver to navigate to points stored on the receiver that we created and uploaded prior to assigning the exercise.

By introducing GPS to introductory students we hope that they will gain an appreciation for some of the strengths and weaknesses inherent within the technology (Trexler, 2000). We also feel there is value in providing introductory physical geology students, who are typically early in their academic careers, with the opportunity to utilize a tool encountered in sciences that involve field research, such as biology, geology, geography, and archeology. In these fields, GPS is commonly used to record the coordinate pairs and elevation values, from which samples are taken, for future mapping applications. GPS technology is also used in field research for finding or relocating sample localities, particularly on surfaces with few landmarks, such as open water or prairies. In addition, GPS lends itself to various applications involving the integration of mathematics and quantitative thinking into the Earth Sciences (Herrstrom, 2000; Johnson and Guth, 2002). Therefore, experience using GPS technology will likely be beneficial for students who may one day take part in field research. For students who will not go on to use GPS for research activities, this exercise can still be valuable because it introduces students to a technology that is becoming seemingly ubiquitous. Whether in cellular phones, used as navigational aids in automobiles, or used as tools for recreational activities like hiking and fishing, GPS plays a role in the lives of most students. Although we provide only a cursory look at GPS technology, we feel that its incorporation into our exercise is valuable because many students will not get the opportunity to experience any direct interaction with GPS technology in an academic setting. For those students who may use GPS technology in later research or work related activities, we strongly advise that they seek additional training.


This exercise was created to supplement the introductory physical geology course curriculum at the University of Northern Iowa. A number of stops on the tour were taken from a geology walking tour created as part of an undergraduate research project (Loheide, 1999). Our expanded exercise was introduced to students who had completed the rocks and minerals component of the course and were familiar with the rock types that would be encountered on the tour. In addition to following the rocks and minerals segment of the introductory physical geology curriculum, our exercise occurs during the portion of the course when map-reading concepts are introduced via several laboratory exercises. We feel that a geology walking tour serves as a good review of rocks and minerals, andthe incorporation of GPS technology is a natural extension of the mapping portion of the course. Together, a geology walking tour and GPS technology provide an innovative way to bridge the concepts of mapping and geology.

Due to the limited number of GPS receivers available, the exercise is intended to be completed by small groups of students. The GPS receivers used for the exercise are Garmin GPS 12 XL units ( support/userManual.jsp), which belong to the Earth Science department and are available for check out by the groups. Although this exercise was implemented as an independent, small-group project, it also could be used as an in-class exercise during the weekly lab section required of the course. In addition, the exercise could be used as an introductory GPS activity without the accompanying geological observations and questions (Herrstrom, 1999).

Prior to beginning the exercise, the instructor provides a list of instructions to get students started. Included in this list are instructions on how to check out a GPS receiver and the location of where to begin the exercise. Also included in this list are guidelines relating to the time requirements for completing the exercise, suggestions about dressing appropriately for the weather, and reminders not to deface or damage any of the objects investigated during the activity (no rock hammers or HCl are to be used). As an introduction to the exercise, we explain the concept and functionality of GPS technology in class. Additionally, the lab exercise also contains information on how GPS technology works as well as explanations of how and why errors are introduced into GPS readings. The exercise also provides students with descriptions of the basic features available on the receivers they will be using to complete the activity (Figure 1). Finally, included m the introduction are screen shots of the various pages, buttons, and menus available on the receiver and what some of the abbreviations on the screen stand for.

The next section of the exercise presents students with a set of helpful hints to make the exercise go more smoothly (Figure 2). These hints were added to avoid frustration that can occur when using unfamiliar technology, recognizing that most students in an introductory course are unlikely to have operated GPS receivers before. These hints focus on how to get the best results using the GPS receivers, such as standing back from large buildings and trees to achieve the strongest signals.

Following these suggestions, there are a few simple pre-exercise questions that reinforce some of the critical information presented in the exercise overview (Figure 2). These questions introduce the concept of compass degrees. This becomes important later in the exercise, when students are given a bearing and asked to navigate to a specific location. Because these questions are intended to be learning tools, the answers are given at the bottom of the page, printed upside down.

The body of the exercise is divided into two main parts (Figure 3). The first part of the exercise requires that the students travel to points designated on a paper map of central campus. Upon reaching these points, a concise description leads the students to the exact feature or specimen they need to examine in order to answer the question(s) for that stop. The students then use the GPS receiver to obtain the coordinates for the specimen and they record that information as well.

The second part of the exercise asks the students to use the tracking ability of the GPS receivers to reach points stored in memory. When working on this part of the exercise, the students select the point corresponding to the next question in the exercise from the waypoint list on the GPS receiver. Once the point is selected, the receiver displays the Compass screen, which gives the bearing to the selected point in compass degrees. Using this information, and the practice they gained in the pre-exercise questions, students can start moving in the correct direction to reach the next stop on the tour. A useful feature for tracking is a screen with the arrow display on the Compass screen that points toward the selected stop. Distance to the stop is also indicated on the screen. However, because the compass orients itself by utilizing the difference between successive GPS positions, the students must be in motion for the compass feature to work. Thus, students must still use the bearing reading to begin moving in the correct direction. As with all the screens required for completing the exercise, a picture of the Compass screen is printed in the exercise with explanations on what each of the values mean (Figure 3). For questions in this portion of the exercise, the students must place a new point on their paper maps of central campus indicating the position of the geologic feature or specimen on campus.


In creating appropriate questions for this exercise, the focus was on logically combining several concepts from classroom content while keeping the exercise relatively simple. For example, one of the questions in the tracking portion of the exercise asks…”The boulders at this stop were most likely moved into Iowa by what natural process, and therefore what US state might they have come from?” To answer this question, students need to recognize the boulders as glacial erratics, recall that the continental glaciers that once covered Iowa came from the north or northeast, and have enough geographic knowledge to know the states neighboring Iowa in these directions. The stops in this activity cover material presented in lecture and/or lab, including the identification and characterization of rocks and minerals, examination of fossils and recognition of their depositional environment, and geologic processes evidenced by specimen characteristics and topographic features.

There are 18 stops in the exercise, with a total of 24 questions, 9 sets of coordinate pairs, and 9 points to be marked on the students’ paper maps of central campus. The total walking distance required for the exercise, assuming the points are done in order, is just under 2 km, and the average time for completing the exercise is about an hour and a half. In addition, all of the stops on the tour are accessible to individuals with disabilities in order to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Latitude and longitude coordinates were used in our exercise because students were most familiar with this coordinate system. However, the idea of using other coordinate systems was explored. UTM coordinates were particularly appealing for our exercise because they can be used to derive distances on the ground in meters and therefore provide students with means of measurement using a GPS receiver. Although we acknowledge the significant benefits of introducing the UTM coordinate system, the surprisingly limited map comprehension demonstrated by the introductory students made explanation of UTM more time consuming than could be justified in a beginning geology course. Therefore, to avoid student confusion, and because of time constraints, we do not introduce the concept of alternate coordinate systems. To compensate for this shortcoming we do not include questions on the exercise that require students to calculate distances using coordinate pairs.

Above all, this exercise was designed to be flexible so it can remain viable in the future. Steps to ensure this include storing the data points for the tracking portion of the exercise on disk. In the event that changes on campus occur, for example, from new construction, tracking points can be added, removed, or modified as needed using a variety of software packages and then uploaded directly from the computer to the receivers. Changes made in this manner are much faster and easier than the alternative of manually changing the data on each receiver. In the case of our exercise we use a shareware GPS utility for uploading and modifying waypoints, but other options may include software sold with the GPS receivers and GIS software packages.

Creation of similar walking tours in other locations, whether GPS receivers are utilized or not, is dependent on the quality and quantity of geologic features and specimens available at the educational level of the students taking the tours. In this instance, the intended audience was students with little geology experience, but the concept of GPS walking tours can easily be applied to more advanced students if the location and availability of features and specimens are appropriate. Whatever the composition of the group, other concerns that may arise when creating a walking tour are balancing the time and walking distance requirements for completing the tour with the desire to show a diverse set of features and specimens. The best way to contend with these issues is to plan the exercise well and to test it thoroughly prior to implementation. For example, we originally had many more stops and questions than could be visited in a reasonable period of time. Several trial runs were conducted until the best number of stops and associated questions remained.

Campus walking tours owe much of their popularity to their practicality. Because cost is usually the single largest factor prohibiting field trips, staying on campus can be a virtually free alternative. There is no need to arrange for bus or van transportation and no liability issues to deal with (Keown, 1984). Although there is some expense required to purchase the necessary GPS receivers, the cost is fairly minimal and the receivers can be used year after year. The GPS receivers used for this exercise were already owned by the department; however similar receivers cost $100 to $300 each. Additionally, it is possible that other science departments on any given campus may have a set of receivers that could be borrowed to accommodate this exercise. Although the potential replacement cost could be significant for lost or broken receivers, by checking out the receivers to students a sense of accountability should be understood.

Despite their low cost, the receivers used for this exercise were fairly accurate, with the average error being less than 15 meters. At that distance the written descriptions clearly defined the intended feature or specimen. However, it should be noted that the original GPS data used to create the tracking points and record the coordinates for the answer key were measured using a Trimble ProXR receiver and differential GPS software in order to achieve accuracy beyond the capability of the receivers used by the students. The reason for this was to limit the overall error as much as possible, but in retrospect this was probably not necessary given the accuracy of the Garmin units. Fortunately, the concepts learned on the inexpensive receivers, although basic, translate well to a wide range of other GPS receivers

Besides cost, the other main argument against field trips and, to a lesser degree, campus walking tours, is the potentially large amount of class time they can consume. This exercise circumvented any class time conflicts by being used as an independent or self-guided assignment. This arrangement also has the benefit of allowing the students to work at their own pace without trying to maintain a schedule. A drawback to allowing students to complete this project independently is that the instructor will not be present to answer questions. However, by allowing students to work in small groups and by giving students several days to complete the exercise, they have the opportunity to utilize each other as resources and to ask questions as needed.


Following the activity, the students are asked to complete a short assessment of the exercise. Responses from students in the four classes (fall 2001/spring 2002 and fall 2002/spring 2003) that have completed the exercise have been positive, with students especially enjoying an activity that allowed them to get outside and do something new. The students like working on the activity on their own or with a small group of their classmates. Many students comment on the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have learned in class. They also express a surprise that there is so much geology on campus and that what they had previously thought was concrete is actually building stone. Some students had a problem understanding how to successfully track to points in the second part of the exercise. Because of this, we revised the exercise by entering the last stop for the first part of the exercise as a tracking point at the beginning of part two, in addition to being placed on the paper map. This lets the students test the tracking functionality while moving toward a known location.

Although the qualitative assessments have been informative and helpful to us in refining the exercise, we sought a more formal evaluation of its effectiveness as a teaching tool. With the spring 2003 group, we conducted a simple numerical analysis of test scores for the map questions portion of the final lab test, comparing students who completed the exercise with those who did not. Of the 10 questions dealing with topographic maps and map reading (60 % of the test points), we found that students completing the GPS campus tour exercise (n=18) scored an average of 4 points (13 %) higher than those who did not (n=47). Interestingly, overall test scores were also better by a factor of 10 % for those who participated in the exercise. This may mean simply, however, that the students completing the activity were the better students in the class and were therefore interested in this new activity and performed well in it. Although we will continue to assess the effectiveness of the exercise and try to get a better handle on measuring outcomes, these results, along with positive anecdotal accounts, indicate to us that this is a worthwhile activity.

As mentioned earlier, our exercise is intended to be an introduction to GPS technology as a complement to a geology walking tour. Although targeted to beginning students, such an exercise could easily be adapted to teach additional geologic skills at a higher level. Herrstrom (2000), for example, reports on an experimental use of GPS in a small physical geology honors class. Through laboratory and homework exercises, such as marking positions with latitude and longitude, closing a triangle, and drawing maps, students learned the basics of GPS while developing analytical and quantitative reasoning abilities. Trexler (2000) designed a field exercise for students preparing for summer geology field camp that combines triangulation, GPS, and terrain inspection. Johnson and Guth (2002) have developed two different exercises which use GPS data in problem solving and provide for the integration of quantitative thinking into geological education: using the GPS to calculate the volume of sand in Great Sand Dunes National Monument and using the GPS to survey an outdoor running track to estimate the system’s accuracy. Possible combinations of activities utilizing GPS technology in geological education are numerous, and it would be fairly simple to incorporate such activities into a GPS campus tour exercise such as ours.

One of the main strengths of this exercise is demonstrating to students that geology is not restricted to small samples in a lab or rocks on distant mountains, but it is visible on most buildings and landscapes on the campus they call home. In addition to the new geologic knowledge, the use of GPS receivers was new to almost all of the students completing the exercise. Although most of the students in this introductory class were not geology or earth science majors, the introduction of a new technical skill and geographic tool may serve them well in the future. A surprising side effect of this exercise was giving the students, who were almost exclusively underclassmen, a better understanding of their own campus by taking them to places they had seldom or never been to. all of these benefits are in addition to the obvious benefits of teambuilding and hands-on learning.


We thank the students of the fall 2001/spring 2002 and fall 2002/spring 2003 Physical Geology classes for their suggestions in improving this activity. We are also grateful to Steve Loheide for allowing us to use portions of his campus geology walking tour in our exercise. Garmin Corporation kindly provided permission to reproduce a portion of a page from the GPS 12XL Owner’s Manual and Reference for use in Figure 1. Comments and suggestions from associate editor Cinza Cervato, reviewers Douglas Yarger and Nathan Niemi, and an anonymous reviewer greatly improved the manuscript.


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Daniel J. Weiss Department of Geography, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 27514,

James C. Walters Department of Earth Science, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614,

Copyright National Association of Geoscience Teachers Mar 2004

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