Google Earth, Expeditions and More in Social Studies

Education, Technology

I recently attended a excellent workshop from Alyssa Marcangelo on integrating Google Expeditions and Google Earth within the classroom. These were tools I was familiar with but thought that they never really found their place within K-12 education, as many of Google Earth’s features are now baked into Google Maps, and low-resolution, static pictures were just not that compelling within Google Expeditions. Yet I took this opportunity to take the time to really consider curricular connections where they might fit in. In a first attempt to provide a context to homeroom teachers for using these tools, I turned to a Fourth Grade Social Studies unit that has students using the Design Thinking process to tackle U.S. regional issues. I thought it might be a good fit to give students a birds-eye view of some of these problems during the Empathize/Understand phase.

An overview of the tools we used:

Google Earth provides easily-navigable satellite imagery through a web app (requires Chrome), an Android/iOS app, or a downloadable Pro version. Three dimensional buildings and terrain as well as Street View is available as students navigate through different environments. We decided to primarily use the web-based version for ease of use. The downloadable Google Earth Pro is still available, which offers a few other features we used, namely the ability to overlay data/annotations through downloadable KML files and the ability to rewind time by accessing older satellite imagery. One class also had the chance to try Google Earth on an Oculus Rift headset.

Google Expeditions are advertised as virtual field trips, which are catalogued within this spreadsheet. Each expedition consists of a set of 360 degree images that have points of interest that provide further information. A teacher can lead the expedition by directing which image/point of interest the students are viewing, but we did not use this feature. Rather, an expedition can be started within follower mode and students can navigate as they wish. Expeditions can be viewed through an Android or iOS app on phone or tablet, where moving the device around will show different parts of the image, or can be used in Cardboard mode where it is shown on a phone/iPod Touch within a Google Cardboard headset. An augmented reality set of expeditions are planned for release by Fall 2018.

Google Earth Engine allows organizations to use the imagery and data behind Google Earth and related tools for custom projects. We only used Earth Engine for its Timelines feature, which can be used as an alternative to similar functionality within Google Earth Pro. A Timeline will cycle through available historical satellite imagery from 1984 to 2016 for a given location. This is useful for looking at issues ranging from climate change to urban sprawl.

Google Street View is accessible through Google Maps, Earth, or even has its own app with user submitted images. If viewing a street view within Maps, it can be interesting to see changes to a community over time, as the user can view older Street View images by clicking on a clock icon that appears and selecting an image from a previous year.

We also used a few websites which utilize Google’s geo data and imagery in other ways, which can be seen in the resources below. Here’s the resources we provided to students, organized by issues:

Trash and Recycling

  • Google Expedition: Sims Municipal Recycling
  • Google Earth/Maps: Johnson County Landfill, Shawnee, KS – note the proximity of recreational areas.

Renewable and Traditional Energy

  • Google Expedition: Golden Hills Wind Farm
  • Google Earth/Maps: Mesquite Solar 1, Tonopah, AZ or any locations from
  • Google Earth Engine: Coal mine near Wright, Wyoming (You can also find it in Google Earth/Maps, enter Street View, and marvel at how long the trains transporting the coal are)
  • Use Project Sunroof to help calculate solar savings in different areas: 
  • Google Earth Pro: USGS Mining 

Climate Change

Urban Sprawl/Changes

  • Google Earth Engine: Las Vegas, NV or Dallas/Fort Worth, TX
  • Google Earth/Maps: Packard Plant, Detroit
  • Google Maps Street View: Hazelridge St., Detroit – note the changes that occur during the years of the housing crisis by using the timeline view


Drought / Flooding / Wetlands

Forest Fires


Oil Spills

Endangered Animals


We provided students with these resources as starting points, but students rather quickly wanted to move beyond them and freely explore Earth, Maps, or the other tools on their own. In some cases, it seemed the time to collect and set up these sites was not worth the time, but it did present a gateway for students to worth more independently with these tools. They may also have worked better with older students, as 4th graders as a whole were not prepared to dig deeper into the information provided with some of these resources. It seemed to work best as a general survey of regional issues, such as with the scavenger hunt we used with one of the classes as they moved from station to station.

MIT Solve Workshop

Design, Education, STEM

Tech Town hosted a workshop from MIT’s Solve team yesterday evening. I attended only due to a chance meeting with Paul Riser, Jr. when I was accompanying teachers looking at Tech Town as a potential field trip site. It turned out to be a snowy evening to trundle downtown, but I’m glad I went as I think Solve presents an interesting approach to tackling social issues.

Attendees included representatives from local industries, particularly engineering, as General Motors was sponsoring the event. Also represented were higher education, STEM related education companies, business consultants, and employees of TechTown and related organizations. We began by learning about Solve’s mission, which is clearly explained on their site. I took it as crowd-sourced problem solving. Solve focuses on four issues during an 18 month cycle, with a new cycle starting up in March. Previous challenges include refugee education and chronic diseases. The themes for the new cycle are:

  • Sustainability: Coastal Communities
  • Learning: Future of Teaching
  • Health: Equity & Access
  • Economic Prosperity: Inclusive Cities/Future of Work

At the beginning of the cycle, Solve looks for challenging but solvable issues related to each theme. Attendees were to try defining an issues that meets that criteria. We split up into groups based on which theme we wanted to tackle. There were enough attendees that two or three tables were devoted to each theme.

I chose to sit at a table looking at future of teaching. We began by individually brainstorming for ~5 minutes what measurable outcomes we would want. We would then share our ideas and find where clusters of ideas might exist. This was our table after this first round.

Next, we considered the obstacles that exist when trying to reach these outcomes. We were told to not focus on larger barriers such as funding or policy, but those which are more easily addressed. Here was our table after another five minutes.

After this, it was time to brainstorm challenges. Defining the problem is critical in actually having workable solution, so there were many considerations such as scope, not suggesting solutions within the problem, not getting caught up in jargon, and more. An ideal challenge could be addressed with many types of solutions, could impact a large number of people, and tends to tackle global needs. Solve also suggested that the types of problems that can be solved with technology more than policy fit better with their model. After again working individually, we shared our challenges, noted patterns, and tried to define two challenges to submit to Solve. This was perhaps the hardest part of the evening. Here are two sets of challenges from neighboring education-focused tables.

The final part of the process was filling in the remainder of the challenges sheet with the hope of finding next steps if attempting to develop a solution. This was also a challenge in some cases. With that, our workshop was done in just under two hours.

From a schools standpoint, I think Solve is an interesting system for considering social issues and finding what others are considering within the problem solving process. Looking at the final selected solutions from previous challenges, it tended to be established organizations with access to resources already, but if students were to spend extensive time on developing a solution, they may be able to compete. Of course, the process would be more important than any finalist status, but it provides an easy way to compare solutions from different parts of the world.

From Making to Computing: A Year of Growth

Essays, MSU MAET

Before beginning the Masters of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program at Michigan State University (MSU), I had a sense of what my interests in informal education were, but little idea on how to move forward. I had spent over five years as a museum outreach educator, but felt my mental wheels spinning a bit as I tried to break out of familiar ways of thinking. After spending just over a year working on my masters degree, the path has become clearer, not just due to guidance from my instructors, but by taking inspiration from the amazing work that my fellow classmates have exposed me to. My attitudes towards the use of technology in the museum or classroom has also changed by taking a more grounded view in connecting the use of tools to pedagogy and content being taught. As I reflect on my experience, I find that the largest changes in how I work to provide compelling experiences to learners of all ages has taken place in three key areas: maker education, transdisciplinary learning, and computational thinking.

A Year in Advance

Essays, MSU MAET, Museums

Summer provides a natural opportunity to reflect and regroup for many educators. Within a museum, the time is often filled with camps, teacher workshops, and special public events, but time must still be set aside for planning. Over the next couple months, I will be transitioning to a new position at work as well as finishing my Master’s degree, so considering the future is particularly relevant at the moment. In order to continue to grow personally and professionally, my current learning goals include gaining experience in hobbyist programming, learning more about how non-profits are managed, and finding new ways to engage the public within a museum.

These goals are chosen based on the idea that I want to continue to do well in a museum environment, but may also wish to explore my own interests in another non-profit setting where much of my experience will transfer over. Of particular interest to me is how to engage a wide variety of ages in learning new technologies, including developing programming and computational thinking skills. I also want these goals to be achievable in the next year and have concrete end products that show evidence of growth.

Creative Computing Lesson Reflection

Coding, Computational Thinking, Creativity, MSU MAET, Technology

During a recent session of our Art and Science Teacher Workshops, I engaged in action research by implementing and reflecting on a lesson on the use of computers for creative means, namely creating visual art. The participants explored the work of Sol LeWitt, who created instruction based works intended to be carried out in a variety of contexts. Brain Pickings has provided an overview that shows how various artists have approached this idea. LeWitt’s instructions can be implemented using traditional technology, but in this lesson I chose to use two newer tools, Scratch and Processing, to introduce how computers can be tools of creative expression through programming and play.

Creative Computing Lesson

Coding, Computational Thinking, Education, MSU MAET

Grade level: K-12 Teachers



Common Core Math (for students – not standards for the workshop)

7.G.2 Draw (freehand, with ruler and protractor, and with technology) geometric shapes with given conditions. Focus on constructing triangles from three measures of angles or sides, noticing when the conditions determine a unique triangle, more than one triangle, or no triangle.

National Core Art Standards (for teachers/students)

CR.1.1.8 Generate ideas, goals, and solutions for original media artworks through application of focused creative processes, such as divergent thinking and experimenting.

CSTA Computer Science Standards (for teachers/students)

L1:6.CT.1 Understand and use the basic steps in algorithmic problem-solving (e.g., problem statement and exploration, examination of sample instances, design, implementation, and testing).

L1:6.CT.6 Understand connections between computer science and other fields.

Change is Constant

Essays, MSU MAET

Just over a year ago, I applied to Michigan State University (MSU) to begin the Masters of Arts in Education Technology (MAET) program. This process forced me to consider my goals not only for the degree but in my profession. I had spent the last three years coordinating an outreach program for northern Michigan schools that used an integrated approach to teaching art and science. I chose to attend MSU in large part because of its rich history in exploring transdisciplinary learning and its relationship to developing creativity skills in K-12 students, which closely matched what I was trying to achieve through our programs, so many of my goals related to further developing an understanding of these topics.

Misconceptions about Computer Science

Computational Thinking, Education, MSU MAET

I recently interviewed fellow educators and software developers about what they thought computer science was. The results were rather interesting, as responses ranged from not being sure at all to focusing on programming and use of computers. The interviewees included:

  • A second grade teacher
  • An art educator
  • A software developer

As you might expect, their responses varied quite widely. This demonstrates a challenge to the computer science field in communicating the nature of the discipline, although debate with the field exists on that very question.

DC 3000 by Thievery Corporation used under the Sampling Plus license.


Zweben, S. (2011). Computing degree and enrollment trends. Computing Research Association.


Thorny Issue Memo: STEM vs. STEAM

Education, MSU MAET, STEM


Since the 1990’s, the National Science Foundation has emphasized the need to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and retain students within the STEM pipeline to propel them to related careers. This call to action is a result of an innovation-driven economy where an increasing number of careers will require STEM skills, but where the majority of students in the United States are not proficient in these fields and have fallen behind their peers on international assessments, resulting in employers who lack qualified applicants to fill STEM positions (National Research Council, 2011). Even after decades of efforts with billions of federal funds allocated to STEM programs each year, there still exists ambiguity over how to best teach STEM, including how closely to integrate the fields within instruction (Sanders, 2009).