Tag Team Tech February 2013

The Whole Word at your Fingertips: Google Earth in the Library

Sarah Ludwig

February 2013

Interested in finding the area of the Colosseum, the amount of time it would take to walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China, or what the Prague of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone really looks like? Then Google Earth has you covered. With a multitude of uses in numerous disciplines, including math, the humanities, and science, this free download is an excellent addition to many projects and programs. It’s easy to use, and Google offers countess lesson plans for use in the classroom. In this edition of Tag Team Tech, we’ll explore some sample projects, as well as go over resources to help you develop your own. Because Google Earth allows for real-world applications for concepts students are learning in class, this could be the perfect tool for you to collaborate with teachers. Or, if you’re a public librarian, you can use Google Earth to connect teens to the greater world without having to buy them all plane tickets.

First, the Basics

Google Earth is a free download for both Mac and PC platforms. To install it on your computer, visit this page and check out the system requirements. Google offers a host of helpful articles and videos for getting started. Here are a few:

Overview of Google Earth
Google Earth Tutorials
Video Tutorials for Beginners
Getting to Know Google Earth: Basic Features Guide

As they write on their website, the possibilities are endless. It’s worth getting comfortable with the basics before you delve into more complex activities within the program. For example, learn how to fly to a particular address or point of interest. Or how to change your view. You should also become familiar with the different tools on the main window. Once you’ve spent a little time playing with the program, you’ll be much more comfortable showing it to others.

Classroom Applications

I have used Google Earth with math, language arts, and social studies classes at all age levels. In social studies, students who were studying different African countries were able to sight see in places like Cape Town and Nairobi. In math, students measured distances between landmarks and the size of important structures. And in language arts, students explored the places that the protagonist in their novel was describing. Here are some sample lesson plans that might work for your students.


  • With Google Earth’s measuring, drawing, and elevation tools, students can make any place on the globe their data set. Real World Math offers lesson downloads for measuring complex areas, crop circles, distances, coastlines, and more. Each download is in .kmz format, which is the Google Earth filetype. Open the file and you’ll begin with student instructions for the lesson; it’s all done for you.
  • Real World Math (which, all in all, is a wealth of information) also provides lessons on math concepts, including time zones, exchange rates, volume, and more. Many of these projects blend into the science curriculum, too.
  • These Google Earth Walks are mostly geared toward younger students, but they may inspire you to create more advanced projects that are similar in scope (check out the Walks for other subjects, too).


  • Besides being able to explore different biomes on Earth, students can also explore Mars and the Moon. With both, Google already offers a ton for students: take a tour of Mars narrated by Bill Nye; check out 3D images from the Mars Rover; take tours of Moon landing sites; watch footage of the Apollo missions.
  • Students can also explore the ocean by diving underwater to check out the seafloor, whale sanctuaries, deep sea vents, and more.
  • The whole sky becomes available, too–this lesson plan (a download), meant for fifth graders, could easily be used with older astronomy students. You’ll also find a space scavenger hunt on this page, if you scroll down (this page has other science lesson plans worth exploring, too).
  • Scholastic and Google partnered on a few lessons, including this one on climate change, which gives students a chance to explore issues like deforestation, ozone depletion, pollution, and greenhouse gases.
  • This blog post explains how someone wrote an Android app to measure the signal strength of cell phone towers on his commute to work. His findings can be downloaded and viewed in Google Earth and could either be studied by your students or used to inspire them to start similar projects. His app is available for free on Google Play.

Language Arts

  • This teacher created a Google Earth overlay (a layer that sits on top of the Earth, that’s interactive) with almost all the locations of Shakespeare’s plays. Students can explore these spots to see what it was really like to live in Bohemia, Angiers, or Inverness. Similarly, another teacher did something similar with the places on Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey.
  • Google Lit Trips is a clearinghouse of downloadable files, similar to the two above, that relate to a huge list of books that your students might be reading for fun or as part of the curriculum. Broken down by grade level, you can find Lit Trips on anything from The Kite Runner to Walk Two Moons.
  • Have students in creative writing classes use Google Earth to explore the places they’re writing about; students writing biographies can walk in the footsteps of their subjects, too.

Social Studies and World Languages (This category could go on for miles, so here are some of my favorites.)

  • A Business History Plan (beware of bad formatting)–students place markers on the sites of important inventions or businesses throughout history.
  • Battlefield Walks–students find the locations of critical Civil War battles and events.
  • This fascinating article on Nail Houses (homes that owners refuse to sell in the midst of a large urban development) uses a Google Earth file to explore nail houses around the world, but mostly in China, where this phenomenon is not uncommon.
  • Google Earth’s Historical Imagery tool allows you to explore cities throughout time, and here are eight things you can do with it.
  • Two layers available for download that have to do with global health, are the WaterAid layer and the ProMED layer. The former allows you to view the work of WaterAid, which helps bring clean water to those who might not have access; the latter to emerging diseases reports from around the world.
  • Students in world language classes who are studying particular cultures can certainly explore the places they’re learning about. In addition, these travel overlays often enhance these explorations by allowing students to explore areas in 3D.

Public Library Programs

Browse the Earth Gallery (school librarians, take note of this site, too) to see if there any any overlays you’d like to show your patrons, depending on their expressed interests. Some examples:

  • Modern-day beats may enjoy tracking Kerouac’s journey in On the Road, especially given the new movie release.
  • Browse Lit Trips for books your teens are reading for fun.
  • Students can mark all the places they’ve traveled, or want to travel.
  • Check out popular sports venues, like the FIFA World Cup stadium or major league baseball.
  • Have a scavenger hunt (see the “sky” hunt above for help).
  • Create a guide to fun things to do in your neighborhood, city, or region. Teens can even embed their own photos.
  • Play games: Monster Milk Truck, Mars Sucks, or the Flight Simulator.

General Resources

Sarah Ludwig  is the academic technology coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, Connecticut. Formerly she was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien (CT) Library, where she developed the library’s first teen program after serving as the head of library services at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in western Massachusetts for three years. She  is currently the chair of YALSA’s Teen Tech Week Committee. Her book, Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program, was published by ABC-CLIO in June 2011.


1 Comment

  1. Hi Sarah, I think Google Earth is an amazing tool for education. It certainly gives a more interactive interface when studying the world, whatever the reason or subject. I’ve used it when planning business trips to get a visual feel for the area where I intend to stay!

    Zoe xxx

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