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 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: 

Climate Change

    • Google Earth Engine: New Orleans, LA – note the changes to coastal areas

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

  • Google Expedition: Belona 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.

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