Using Google Earth to Teach Geology

I first discovered Google Earth back when it was still Keyhole and Google had just bought them up. For the past couple of years I’ve had a free academic license for Google Earth Pro and it has become one of my favorite teaching tools. I regularly use it during lectures to illustrate landforms, discuss geologic events in the news (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.), and to simply enhance the geographic context of photos. This year, as part of the license renewal process, Google has requested that I share some of my successes with the Google Earth user community. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to do so. What follows are just a couple of the ways I’ve used Google Earth to teach geology.

My idealized use case for Google Earth is one that I’ve yet to actually achieve, though there’s a good chance I’ll be able to finally realize it this semester. My Intro Geology classes generally follow a traditional lecture format, though I often try to mix it up with videos, clickers, and other innovative interactive techniques I’ve learned in large part through the excellent NAGT Cutting Edge workshops. Normally when I teach about geologic process and landforms such as alpine glaciation my lecture will include plenty of photos and a good deal of arm waving, but has traditionally included no significant student interaction beyond my conversational lecture style. What I’m hoping to do this semester, now that a significant number of students are bringing wireless enabled laptops and tablets to class, is to limit my traditional description of alpine glacial features to the first 35-40 minutes of class and then use the final 15 minutes to ask students to go out in Google Earth and find these alpine glacial features for themselves. It’s a very simple exercise, but it requires students to synthesize the material that I’ve been discussing in order to know where to go looking for these features and then recognize the different elements when they find them. Ideally I’d end the class by asking students to each e-mail me a placemark of an alpine glacial feature of their choice, using the description box of the placemark to give a brief account of geologic origin of the landform they’ve identified. In addition to enhancing student engagement with the topic by invoking an active learning style, students would get a chance to experience the joy of discovery in a virtual field experience that I cannot otherwise duplicate here on the high plains of western Kansas. Alpine glaciers are almost the ideal scale of geologic feature to explore in Google Earth, though they are by no means the only one. One could easily adapt this exercise to river systems, coastal features, volcanoes, and regional geologic structures such as anticlines and synclines, to name just a few.

I have also begun employing Google Earth as a component of a number of the “GeoChallenges” that I’ve begun offering this semester. The very first GeoChallenge of this semester offers students credit for solving one of the ongoing “Where on (Google) Earth?Google Earth Placemark” challenges that were pioneered by Brian at his Clastic Detritus blog. Already this semester I’ve had two Intro Geology students successfully solve the Where on (Google) Earth challenge in (relatively) open competition with the general geoblogosphere. Another GeoChallenge invokes Google Earth to get students to explore the geology of their hometown. I expect to offer many more GeoChallenges this semester that involve Google Earth in some way.

Finally, I also used Google Earth extensively last spring in teaching an upper level geomorphology class. Students were given weekly assignments to investigate different types of landforms and I strongly encouraged them to cite examples using placemarks in Google Earth. Although student response to the use of Google Earth in this class was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped, I believe that with refinement this class could make excellent and extensive use of the Google Earth platform.

I’ve certainly got other ideas for using Google Earth for teaching geology (virtual field tripsGoogle Earth Placemark, for example), but it’s time for me to listen now. How are you using Google Earth to teach geology (or any other course)? Got any other ideas for using it that you’d like to bounce off the community before putting into practice? I’d love to hear your ideas and questions.

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