Get outside and learn: geocaching with students

About four months ago my husband, Lee, took our two boys for a walk close to The Cascades – a walking track near my school that happens to be part of the Garigal National Park. On the walk they crossed a small stream and the boys started looking for tadpoles. Lee was impressed with the place for two reasons. One, he loves geocaching and was thinking that this would be the perfect place to lodge a new cache. And two, the place inspired a natural curiosity in our boys – they were very keen to know where the water came from, why some tadpoles had legs and some didn’t, why dogs weren’t allowed down there etc. He came home from the walk excited by the vision of geocaching and education coming together to create uber engaging lessons for primary students. Must admit, my hubby would have made a great teacher.

After lots of conversations about how I could maybe bring Lee’s idea to my teaching, I finally implemented his vision on Monday and it was great!

Year 12 English students must study the Area of Study: Belonging. It’s the very first thing we English teachers are meant to teach our new Year 12 students for the HSC. It’s a nice idea, having students think, read, discuss and write about what it means to belong. They’re at the perfect age to consider the factors that impact an individual’s failure to belong. Problem is this part of the HSC – like so much of it – becomes meaningless when aligned with an essay-based assessment task and/or the end of year examinations. I want my kids to engage in their world and develop a meaningful response to the question ‘What does it mean to belong?’ (this is the driving question for our study). Lee’s idea about geocaching with students to help them develop a better appreciation for their local environment seemed the perfect opportunity to (re)connect with my students in their community.

So what did I do? I took them outside. Below is a rough outline of my ‘mini-project’ which I think can be adapted for other subjects/multiple subjects too:

1. Teacher established five ‘caches’ – one large and four mini caches – in a natural setting within walking distance of the school. The large cache contained trinkets for each class member, a log-book, a pen and four slips of paper each with a separate set of coordinates leading students to a mini-cache. Each mini-cache contained a log-book, pen and laminated card of activities (task-card). You can see the activities included on our task card outlined in a blog post here.

2. Teacher met with students at the beginning of The Cascades track. Teacher overview of task, explaining geocaching and allocating a team leader to control the GPS. Class had previously been divided into ‘teams’ in preparation for this mini-project. As a class, students navigated their way to the large cache using GPS.

3. Students found the large cache and each student selected a trinket and added name to the log-book. Each team collected ONE slip of paper with coordinates to a mini-cache.

4. Teams of students worked together to find their mini-cache. Students used free GPS apps downloaded onto smartphones. Would be great if the school had a collection of GPS devices to share amongst the teams but the apps were pretty reliable.

5. Upon finding the mini-cache, students logged their find in the log-book (date, time and students’ signatures) and removed the laminated task card. Students worked as a team to complete the tasks. Most students completed them old-skool with pen and paper but in an ideal world 3G enabled mobile devices would be used to record responses to tasks and upload them to edmodo. 6. Once majority of tasks completed (some required further work at home or back in the classroom), students returned the caches to their original hiding spots.

7. Whole class regrouped for a post-activity debrief and chat about their experience finding the cache. We then went for a bit of a walk to take more photographs and see what was around. Then students returned to school.

8. Teams uploaded their completed tasks to the edmodo. This is where we are now – students still finishing the tasks and getting them online.

9. (to be completed – still a dream) Each team’s completed tasks will be compiled as a blog post titled ‘(team name), The Cascades’. A QR code to this blog post will be added to the corresponding ‘mini-cache’ so that future cachers – or muggles making an accidental ‘find’ – can access the students’ descriptions of the location.

10. (to be completed – still a dream) The class will select their best pieces to use as the basis of a collaborative website (using a free weebly) that will be presented to students from other schools in the state and internationally. Our class has connected with a school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Knox Grammar, Wahroonga.

11. (to be completed – still a dream) The caches will be registered on geocaching.com using the class group name. The classes will be responsible for writing a description for each cache – this is part of the geocaching game. We will continue to track the caches to see who finds them and what objects have been left.

The students all reported back that they really enjoyed this experience. Only four of the seventeen students in my class had ever been to this walking track even though it was only ten minutes walk from our school. They were surprised that such a beautiful, natural place was nestled within the suburban surrounds. A number of the students asked if we could do something like this activity again – they liked getting out of the class to learn. I have written a blog post for our class blog that showcases some of the completed students work so far. You can see it here.

I’m currently HSC marking and had the good fortune of being in a group with a fellow tweeter – @glennymac. He was keen to have his boys take part in this task and whilst he didn’t include the geocaching aspect he did get his students out of the classroom and into the local natural environment to complete the activities. His experience was equally positive and I hope he will write a guest blog post for me about it soon. I am very much in debt to his professionalism and organisation skills, as he put together a great document that outlines the learning objectives for this ‘mini-project’. I’ve added it below. He works at a private school and I work at a public school and we thought this might be a nice bridge between these two often separate spheres of learning. I’m really looking forward to connecting our students and having them share their reflections on their local environment and how this activity has helped them to appreciate belonging (or not belonging) to a community, a place, the wider world, a group and to nature.

(If you’re looking for a more directed guide on geocaching you could check out this link here, but I don’t recommend watching the first video – the guy’s accent is SO annoying!)