Getting students outdoors to learn: GPS Treasurehunt


by David A. Brigham
Retired teacher, Lansing School District

Editor’s Note: For a review of geocaching apps, see The 6 Best Geocaching Apps on Mr. Brigham uses the eTrex 10 GPS unit for geocaching.

Teachers face many legislative demands that require adherence and reduce flexibility to do what they KNOW is best for their students. The requirements and emphasis on literacy and math overshadow important aspects of science and social studies. The latter two disciplines are routinely left out of curriculum as a result of the high-stakes testing and emphasis on math and literacy. In addition, students rarely get a chance to leave their classroom – or their desks.

I have developed a lesson to address this deficiency while meeting many of the goals in current Michigan standards. This is an engaging, cross-curricular activity in an outdoor setting which I call a GPS Treasurehunt. One could easily be set up at a school or a nearby park. It is meant for students in 4th grade or above.

  • Literacy Content: reading informational text, written summarized content, inferencing skills, following directions, vocabulary
  • Math Content: distance benchmarking skills, estimation, relative distance measurement
  • Science Content: tree identification, ecosystem interrelationships, habitats, needs of living organisms, orbits (Moon and satellites), signal transmission and interference, observation and inference, weather, seasons
  • Social Studies Content: latitude, longitude, cardinal directions, location relative to Lansing, historical relevance, economic impact
  • Other Content: physical activity, teamwork, technology integration, practical application


Ask what the acronym GPS represents (GPS, or Global Positioning System) and how it works. (a system used to accurately find locations (latitude/longitude) anywhere on Earth using satellites >12,000 miles above the Earth (use a comparison for benchmarking: jets fly at about 6 miles up and the moon is 250,000 miles from Earth; it takes a rocket 4 days to travel to the moon at 17,000 mph). GPS devices are replacing compasses through technology.


A GPS course is set up with 8-12 locations and boxes with information are placed at appropriate locations (called waypoints). Groups of 3-5 students will use the GPS unit to navigate to the correct waypoint. The GPS will generate a directional line (or a compass) to point in the correct direction. On the eTrex 10 GPS unit I use, the student is the triangle and the line-of-travel extends from that triangle. The user will need to move about 10 feet before the GPS will accurately point in the correct direction (12,000 miles is a long way for the signal to travel!).

Trees, rain and snow may impact reception on the GPS. Continue walking in the general direction while staying on paths or open areas until within 20 feet of the waypoint (the GPS can tell you the distance to the waypoint). Then start looking for the waypoint box remembering it’s by a TREE (or other specific landmark in a park or whatever you decided).

The waypoint box will have information written in it. It will be located close to the tree or landmark/point-of-interest. Once students get close, they will need to look for the box in that waypoint. I always do the first waypoint together as a group to address any problems they inevitably discover. Then the students are told their waypoint sequence for their search and set loose.

Once students have found the box:

  1. They open it and read the information.
  2. They write the tree name and two facts that were interesting in their journal
  3. Important: seal the box back up and replace it back EXACTLY where it was found.
  4. The next student enters the next waypoint into the GPS and the search continues.

Depending on time constraints, ages, and abilities, groups can generally find four waypoints in a half hour. Alter the waypoints each group searches for so they are not going to the same ones at the same time. Tell students when they are expected back at the start point.


Ask what students enjoyed about the activity before asking what challenges they encountered. It is beneficial to have them write their responses down.

Students love the independence this activity gives them. They work out problems themselves in a collaborative way. They enjoy not having a teacher overseeing every move.
Teachers are often reluctant to give up control of their class and are worried about students’ safety or becoming lost. The ‘Start” for each activity will always lead students back to a safe area. Boundaries are given and reinforced before students leave.

Locations of Lansing-area GPS Treasurehunts

(set up your own course or confer with the operators of the location – boxes are NOT left outside)

  • Beekman Therapeutic Riding Center – Lansing – horse information treasurehunt
  • Bengel Wildlife Conservancy – Bath – tree treasurehunt
  • Dimondale Outdoor Discovery Center – Dimondale – tree treasurehunt
  • Ebersole Environmental Center – Wayland – tree treasurehunt
  • Fenner Nature Center – Lansing – invasive species treasurehunt; tree treasurehunt
  • Harris Nature Center -Meridian Township – tree treasurehunt
  • Lincoln Brick – Grand Ledge – tree and historical treasurehunt
  • Mt. Hope Cemetery – Lansing – Cemetery markers historical treasurehunt

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