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An Introduction to Project ATLAS

The Global Positioning System (GPS)

Using GPS in the Classroom

Experiment 1: The Global Mapping Experiment

Mapping Your Community

Experiment 2: The Community Mapping Experiment

ATLAS Wrap-up and Suggested Activities

ATLAS Worksheets

Mapping Your Community


The Community Mapping Experiment enables the students to "define" their community by using the GPS receiver to measure the position of some important landmarks. The Community Mapping Experiment is divided into three phases:

  1. Experiment Design Phase. As a classroom activity, the students determine which landmarks define their community.
  2. Observation Phase. Appointed Observers (students, teachers, parents, or some combination) must visit the landmarks and measure the locations with the GPS receivers. This phase can last several days. When finished with all the landmarks, the students e-mail the results around the world.
  3. Plot Phase. Data from other classrooms around the world are plotted and students can learn about their colleagues’ communities.

This section covers the Experiment Design Phase classroom activity. The Observation and Plot Phases are covered in Experiment 2: The Community Mapping Experiment.

Reference Location

Throughout the discussion of the Community Mapping Experiment, you will see the term "Reference Location." The Reference Location is simply the location whose position you measured in the Global Mapping Experiment. Make sure you have those results readily available.

Experiment Design Phase (Classroom Time: 40 minutes)

The community mapping experiment is designed to allow you, the teacher, the flexibility to make this project as simple or as involved as you wish. The goal of this experiment is to have students communicate to one another the places in their own communities that they find important, valuable, interesting, and/or significant. The two goals for the experiment design phase are:

Landmark Identification

As an interactive class exercise, have the students make a list of the most important landmarks in their community. For practical reasons, the list should probably not be too long, but should probably not contain fewer than five locations. The students should decide what is important to them. This list might be different than if you or another adult made it. Examples of important locations (other than the school, which is the reference location) are:

  • Sports stadiums and arenas
  • Government buildings
  • Parks and playgrounds
  • Historical Landmarks

The students may think of other types of important landmarks. Try to make sure that the landmarks are not too close together. They should be at least 1 kilometer apart.

You as the teacher must lead the students in choosing appropriate landmarks. The students may have to be prompted. On the other hand, they might come up with a far greater number than is practical to use. They may choose a landmark that is too far away or otherwise impractical. You must lead the students to a group consensus on sites that meet your practical criteria.

The Community Mapping Experiment is intended to demonstrate to the students that cultural expression and scientific investigations are not separate endeavors, but arise from similar needs to express ourselves creatively. On one hand, students are "defining" themselves by their choices of landmarks. They will want to choose landmarks that they think will represent them to others. That is why the students should be allowed as much freedom as possible to make their own choices in landmarks. They will be posed with the problem of making some choices regarding landmarks. They may need assistance at first to help them realize that there is no "right answer" to this problem, only "their answer."

On the other hand, they will also be "defining" themselves through the scientific process: through coordinates, numbers, results of calculations. These numbers will be e-mailed around the world. These numbers will "define" them in a limited way to the rest of the world. But these numbers are not simply "labels," like an identification number. They are more than that. These numbers are the result of the creative choices the students made in landmark identification. These aspects of the Community Mapping Experiment should be pointed out and discussed by the class.

Observation Planning

Somehow, you or the appointed observers must get to each landmark with a GPS receiver. How you do this is up to you; each school and class may have different constraints. Here are some examples of methods for carrying out the observations:

  • Each site may be visited by the entire class. This option may require the arrangement of transportation and the appropriate parental permission.
  • Each site may be visited by one or more "appointed" students. This option would require the students to take home the GPS receivers. Appropriate protections must be in place to protect from loss of equipment or to reimburse in case of loss.
  • You, the teacher, or other school personnel could visit the sites and make the measurements. Your experience in the Global Mapping Experiment should indicate to you that it takes only a few moments to make each observation. A list of 5-10 sites would take at most only a few hours to measure. This time can be spread out over several weeks, and over several teachers, so it’s not a lot of time. This may be the best option in terms of ease of execution, but requires a time commitment by you the teacher(s).

During this pilot year for ATLAS, an SAO Scientist Observer will be able to help you with the Observation Planning, and may even help with the execution of the Observation Phase.

Space Geodesy Group
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
60 Garden St, MS 42
Cambridge, MA 02138-1516