Google Earth: The “Dopamine Hit” for Exploring Place?

Every geography teacher will be able to share their experiences of the common misconceptions by students, including:

  • Antarctica only has one ‘c’ in it;
  • Deserts have to be hot;
  • Africa is one big desert of a poor country (three in one there!)

Whilst these can be addressed quickly, I’m also fascinated by the follow-up questions that arise:

Student: “Go on then Sir, what countries are there in Africa?”

Me: “There are 54 in total actually.”

Student: “But they’re all the same aren’t they?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love dialogue with my students, but there are certainly other ways in which we can develop a sense of scale and place from the classroom. More importantly, how can we instil a curiosity/wish/desire/passion (depending on how far you want to go!) in the students themselves? A lot of students aspire to get to the next level on Fortnite, or to produce the next popular video on TikTok, so surely we can unlock this, “dopamine hit” when exploring a place. Frustratingly, I am still experiencing a number of students (including the very able A/A* exam youngsters) who struggle to locate places on a map.

Me: “Wouldn’t it be lovely if some of your screen time was spent away from social media, and instead pouring over maps and developing your knowledge about the world?”

Student(s): “Lol.”

Case Studies is the one. With deep regret I now reflect on the numerous times I’ve launched headfirst into a case study using a powerful hook for learning, but then committed a cardinal sin by not showing the location. The time pressure that is placed on all of us to deliver the entire content of a specification (it’s definitely a thing), can often cause us to misplace the core knowledge, understanding & skills… actually scrap that… the core pillars of our increasingly topical and relevant subject.

Case Studies – Have you caused ‘death by powerpoint’ before?

I was one of those geography teachers who shied away from GIS. For the majority of my teaching career up until this point I only really focused on GIS when trying to conjure up some wishy-washy experience of it on an application for a teaching post. One night I took a stab in the dark and sent a twitter plea for help and was recommended to try Google Earth as a nice starter, and that’s when it started. I didn’t need to tuck into my usual late-night planning supply of Tangfastics, Google Earth was giving me the hits I needed.

Try it, maybe it will work for you, and (more crucially) maybe you will share this with your students. It could be a game-changing 2-3 mins when introducing each case study that you teach.

Step 1: Spin the Earth

Load up Google Earth (click here and then click ‘Launch Earth’) and simply marvel at our earth. Click on it and spin it around.

Step 2: Type in an Address

On the left panel, click on the magnifying glass and search for a commonly known location (e.g. school, local landmark). Press return or click on the location in the drop down list and Google Earth will take you there. Click and hold on the screen to move around.

Step 3: Explore

In the bottom-right corner of your screen you will find a wealth of Google dopamine hits:

1) Zoom In / Out

These buttons (or by using the rollerball on your mouse) will allow you to zoom in and out of your chosen location. Some areas will show considerable magnifications (depending on the restrictions on Google in the particular country, or the remoteness of the location).

Is the Pope home?

2) Where am I?

A nice little button. One click will take you to your current location.

3) The Compass

  • Double-clicking the compass will re-orientate you screen with North at the top of your screen.
  • Click & hold on any of the two dots in the outer ring and this will allow you to spin the view of your location.
  • Click & hold on the compass needle and you will be able to tilt your view into a 3D view.
I wonder if we can see him from here?

Good isn’t it!?

4) 2D / 3D Toggle

Click on this button to simply toggle between the different views. Be sure to try some major urban areas (Manhattan, NY) and extreme rural (Mt. Everest), or even take a trip to Copacabana beach.

5) Walk the Streets (or landscape)

Picking up the little Google man (click and hold on him) will allow you to see if you can drop him into an area and have a closer look. If you see any blue dots or lines you will be able to place him and explore the area at ground level. Clicking on the directional arrows on the roads/paths/rivers will allow you to move around.

Walk the streets of Manhattan

Pot Luck

Roll the die. Great fun. Making this a regular starter to a lesson could really develop knowledge and a sense of place.

“That’s not bad that Sir.”

A comment from a student who remained behind after the lesson to have a go himself on the interactive whiteboard. The same young once-disengaged individual who only chose Geography at GCSE because, “there was nothing else.” I’ll take that.

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