Google Earth makes a world of geographic information available to your students in a dynamic way over a web browser. Use these ideas to get familiar with the available tools and features, and infuse your students’ learning with geographic thinking and inquiry.

These ideas closely connect to the National Geography Standards and many of the Geography Standards in the C3 Framework.

A world map with a geode projection.

Comparing Map Projections

Most often with printed maps and maps that can be found on the Internet, the size and shape of features (continents, islands, the ocean) are distorted because cartographers use map projections to display a spherical feature on a flat surface. To provide students with more background on this topic, show the video Selecting a Map Projection, or conduct the activity Investigating Map Projections.

Explain that Google Earth, however, is a virtual globe, which means that features are not distorted in the same way as they are in a projected map. Have students observe this effect by first looking at Google Maps and comparing the size of Greenland to the size of Africa, based on what they see in the map. Have them estimate how much bigger Africa is than Greenland. Then have them do this same exercise in Google Earth. How do their estimates differ? Discuss the topic of map projections, find additional examples of differences in distortion, and brainstorm common geographic misconceptions that might stem from this feeling.

Picture of Earth from space.

I'm Feeling Lucky

Have students use the I’m Feeling Lucky feature (represented by the dice icon) in Google Earth to visit 5-10 locations around the world. Have them explore each place using Google Earth data and maps, including Street View (if available for that location). Students should save each place in their My Places folder so they can easily refer back to them. For each location, have students decide the three most important pieces of information about each of those places. (Tip: Students can use the Knowledge Cards to gather information.) Challenge students to develop detailed geographic descriptions that might include absolute or relative locations, the topography of the landscape (or architecture, if it’s a built structure), and other cultural attributes of the place.

Picture of Chichen Itza

Ten-Day Tour Around the World

Getting familiar with the physical and human geography of the world we live in is a cornerstone of becoming a global citizen. Challenge students to use Google Earth to build an itinerary for a tour they will take with family or friends to 10 locations around the world.

Direct students to include a variety of sites with diverse historical, cultural, and environmental significance—for example, the Taj Mahal (a cultural site in India), the Amazon rain forest (an area of environmental significance), and the Great Wall of China (a site of historical significance).

Encourage students to use the worksheet Creating a Tour Around the World with Google Earth to explore in Google Earth and plan their tour. Have students save their tour stops to the My Places folder, and create a detailed tour itinerary to share.

Photo of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Exploring Structures

Use the 3D functionality of Google Earth to view the following structures around the world: Gateway Arch (St. Louis, Missouri), Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, California), Prague Castle (Prague, Czech Republic), Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy), Osaka Castle (Osaka, Japan), and the Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain). Have students read the information card for basic information on each place. Students can explore the structures, write mathematical and geometric descriptions of them, and create a list of questions they have about the structures. Have students go further by working in small groups to research and present on the buildings’ structural engineering, cultural significance, and present day role in their respective cities.

Photo of Half Dome at sunset.

On Top of Half Dome

Have students visit Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome in Google Earth. Demonstrate how to change the tilt and perspective of the viewing angle to see Half Dome from all sides. Then have them explore this natural feature using Street View. Students should make observations about the rock and hypothesize why the Half Dome is shaped like it is. Then learn more about the park by reading a brief history of Yosemite, and watching this video overview

Ask students to imagine themselves standing atop Half Dome, after hiking to the peak. Have them write a paragraph from this perspective, looking out over Yosemite Valley. Encourage them to study the surrounding area to add in descriptive geographic language. Students can further explore Yosemite with these additional Street View scenes: El Capitan, Giant Sequoias.

The Lewis Range and partially frozen Lake McDonald.

Exploring the Hydrosphere

Have students view Google Earth to find and identify as many examples as they can of the hydrosphere. If background information is needed, you can have them read this encyclopedic entry on the hydrosphere or use the activity Our Hydrosphere. Working in Google Earth, students can find examples of lakes, rivers, man-made reservoirs, glaciers, icebergs, ice sheets, and even clouds (make sure to be zoomed out and looking at the whole globe to see clouds in Google Earth). You can split students into groups to conduct a hydrosphere scavenger hunt and lead a discussion about which elements of the hydrosphere are harder to find than others (e.g., underground reservoirs).

Photo of Devils Tower.

National Parks Rock

The National Park Service oversees more than 400 sites across the United States. Many of these are places of immense natural beauty and ecological importance. Others are important sites of shared historical heritage. And many have amazing rock formations!

Have students download and open this KMZ file in Google Earth. Direct students to double click on each park's name in the left menu to zoom in to each park. Have students identify examples of interesting geological features in these parks. Demonstrate to students how to use Street View and view features in 3-D.

Have students explore resources such as this National Parks page to learn more about unique geological features. The encyclopedia entry on weathering provides helpful background information. For additional activities to get students excited about parks, see Find Your Park, Love Your Park.

The Cathedral Rock formation, bathed in sunset's golden glow.

Exploring Landforms

Use Google Earth with the activity Mapping Landforms. Have students identify different types of landforms and create a state landform map. Students can race around the world in Google Earth to find examples of the following landforms: lakes, mountains, valleys, plateaus, plains, rivers, bays. You can create a game out of this by assigning points when students find unique examples or examples from different countries or continents. You can get more complex with additional landforms such as mesas, archipelagos, and glacial moraines. See our encyclopedia of geographic terms and concepts for background info, such as this article on isthmuses. Extend this idea by leading a discussion about how different features form over time or which ones make human settlement easy or difficult.

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