Waco Gem and Mineral Club, Waco, Tx

20.4 Using GPS


20.4: Using GPS

'GPS' stands for 'Global Positioning System', a satellite-based navigation system operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. It allows for determining accurate positioning on the earth‘s surface in latitude and longitude coordinates aided by some two dozen satellites in space. Initially reserved for military and government use, a part of the system known as the Standard Positioning System, has become readily available for civilian use and now appears in navigation systems for cars, for general aviation pilots, for recreational hikers, and more.

You can use GPS to find your way around with a handheld GPS receiver device or even a smartphone, and learning to use GPS is an important skill in today‘s world. In fact, most gem, mineral, and fossil guidebooks are now including GPS coordinates along with basic roadmaps, and some books are entirely geared to GPS, such as David A. Kelty‘s The GPS Guide to Western Gem Trails. Keep in mind, though, not all published coordinates are precise, and I‘ve been warned by Christina Morrissey of the Northwest Federation that there are three formats for coordinates. That is, the numbers can be expressed in three different ways, and they do not mean the same location. For instance, see coordinates of Delorme Gazetteers versus Benchmark Maps. Every GPS unit can be set to express each of these three formats, but the fact that they exist is rarely discussed.

One fun way to learn how to use GPS is geocaching, which has become an increasingly popular pastime. It‘s basically a treasure hunt or a variation on hide-and-go-seek. People all across the world (even Antarctica!) have hidden waterproof containers, called geocaches, and they‘ve posted coordinates so that others can locate the hidden caches. When players find a cache, they‘ll often enter the date and their own 'code' into a logbook in the container. Sometimes the caches also contain little trinkets for players to trade. Players then share their experiences online.

Dennis Gertenbach, leader of the Junior Geologists of the Flatirons Mineral Club of Colorado, recommended this activity to me. He has taken kids geocaching to an area where he also demonstrates how to use a topographical map. For more information on geocaching, Dennis refers us to the following website: http://www.geocaching.com. A good article entitled 'GPS and Geocaching in Education' provides a nice, clear overview and introduction to this fun activity, along with some how-to video slide shows. It‘s available via a web site created by professors and graduate students at San Diego State University.

In addition to exploring the geocaching website, you might encourage kids to read Donald Cooke‘s book, Fun with GPS (2005). Written specifically for kids and illustrated with hundreds of pictures, it explains what GPS is and how they can use it. It‘s also filled with fun activities for kids to gain hands-on experience. As one way of fulfilling this badge unit, you might encourage them to try one of those activities.

Note: Kids can use this activity to satisfy requirements toward earning the Rocking on the Computer badge simultaneously (Activity 15.5). If they go on a geocaching trip, they can apply that toward the Field Trip badge (Activity 8.3).