MET:Google Earth in Science and Math Classrooms

From UBC Wiki

Google Earth in the Science & Math Classrooms Primer 1.0
by Michel Lacoursiere & Jose S. Velasquez, ETEC 510 2010

Google Earth

Google Earth (GE) is a standalone free geospatial software from Google Inc. Its main purpose is to provide a view of the Earth using overlay satellite images of their terrains. Although imagery was previously updated yearly, recently Google has worked hard to provide newer satellite imagery and regular increments which makes it that much more relevant for classroom use (Claburn, 2010).

GE’s use in the classroom is further extended by layers and user-generated content. Layers can provide more detailed information about a given geographical area, information ranging from local restaurants, to sunken ships, to real-time weather patterns and multiple layers can be used to analyze multiple factors, making it useful for studying math and science. Content created by users can be "embedded" into GE and can link to pictures, videos, audio, third party applications, and websites related to a particular geographic region, city, or country. These multimedia and interactive aspects of GE further enhance its use in the classroom.

Key Definitions

Google Earth has many features, affordances, and extensions that use specific terminology not commonly used by teachers. Here are some of the more important terms to help you better understand the potential for Google Earth in the classroom:

  • KML, KMZ & XML

These are the extension names of files that can enhance Google Earth's data.

KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language (the programming language used to create KML files); KMZ is the compressed version of KML.

XML stands for Extensible Markup Language (the programming language used to create XML files, and the basis for the KML language). Both KML & KMZ files will enhance the data, layers, or features of Google Earth.

  • Layers

Layers in Google Earth are optional data which offer more information about a given geographical region. The stand alone free version includes 274 different layers that can be applied. They range from geographic data, to restaurants, to images, videos, panoramas, to statistical data. Click the image to see the entire list of layers available in the free version of Google Earth.

  • Placemarks

Were Google Earth a geography book or an atlas, a placemark would be the equivalent of a bookmark or a sticky-note. Placemarks allow users to save a place they've found on the earth, beneath the ocean, on the moon, or mars, so that they can return to it after they have closed down Google Earth. A placemark is represented by a yellow pin icon, and when double clicked offers information entered by the user, as well as coordinates of the placemark.

Extensions & Enhancements


As mentioned previously, these files allow individuals to add user created content to Google Earth. Such content can range from seeing a historical view of Earth's Magnetic Field, to the effects of an earthquake, to real-time streaming data of clouds, weather, and traffic.

Examples of KML

There are way too many examples that can be listed here. We have placed several examples in each of the classroom sections below, and included a list of links where you can find more KML/KMZ files to explore and incorporate into your classes in our links section.


Google Earth includes its basic satellite images of earth, as well as its streetview images of many urban centers. Using built-in layers, as well as KML/KMZ files, the images available on Google Earth easily outnumber the population of our planet.


This was originally a website-only service developed by two Spanish businessmen in 2005 but was purchased by Google in 2007 and subsequently incorporated into GE (Wikipedia, 2010). The purpose of Panoramio is to allow users to upload pictures of specific geographical areas (both urban, rural, and remote) to further enhance Google Earth. Pictures submitted to Panoramio must be "geotagged" (meaning longitude and latitude are embedded by a GPS-capable camera or


With over four billion (4,000,000,000) images on its database, Flickr is the largest photo-sharing community in the world. Although not a Google Product (yes, it is still owned by Yahoo), there are user generated KML/KMZ files that allow Flickr and Google Earth to work together (Flickr, 2009). One of the most fascinating projects to date involves using Flickr to play a game called Google Earth Game which is a treasure hunt game played by schools all over the world.


Google Earth comes with most of these multimedia layers built in. Again, we cannot cover every single multimedia layer and mashup available within Google Earth, but we hope to cover some of the more classroom relevant ones.


Although not highly regarded as a reference tool within academic circles, Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Terdiman, 2005). For high school purposes it may or may not suffice as a reference tool but does offer the integration of historical, scientific, and geographical data within Google Earth as a layer.

National Geographic

Similar to Wikipedia, the National Geographic Layer offers users historical, scientific, and geographical data from its own archives. The data often directs users to National Geographic Articles complete with pictures, video, and text from some of the most current research.


Although a highly controversial tool for schools, the Youtube layer in Google Earth allows users to see videos of a given geographic region (Hodaei, 2010). Given the potential for students to make their own videos and upload them and link them through Google Earth, the academic potential of this layer is great. Some ideas could be creating a video about a geographical video, a historical video, and even a video about a school-based project.


This is one of the lesser known tools available in Google Earth. Voicethread is a voice, video, and image recording tool that has become a highly useful tool for teachers of many subjects. Used within GE it allows students around the world to collaborate, discuss, and share on whatever topic or project a teacher or a community of teachers have set. Since it allows users to record both text and voice it is an ideal tool for nearly any classroom.

Earth's Oceans & Extra-terrestrial Exploration

These are some of Google Earth's most amazing affordances for science teachers by allowing users to explore earth's oceans both from a bird's eye view and from an underwater (submersible) view. What is more GE allows pictures, articles, and video of earth's oceans to be embedded and linked within Google Earth (see Panoramio, youtube, and Flickr postings above). GE developers also added a layer that shows the current location of the earth in relation to the sun (to determine where it is night and day on the earth).

{{#ev:youtube|6ATw1f_qcEg|300}} Ocean Exploration

{{#ev:youtube|zHJ77RsnFXI|300}} Moon Exploration

{{#ev:youtube|GjcCF6cIlPw|300}} Mars Exploration

{{#ev:youtube|CrUQyeoBcoI|300}} Sky Exploration

Google Earth Classroom usage

We hope the activities and affordances presented in the following sections will benefit those who wish to integrate Google Earth into their math or science classroom. While this is not an authoritative list of all its affordances, we hope to provide science teachers a starting point for one of the most powerful and versatile tools available to classrooms.

Google Earth with Mathematics Classrooms

With recent advances in the software activities like measuring fractals, complex area, learning about volume, polyhedrons, spherical geometry, and scientific notation are now possible. Below we have listed a sample lesson created by "climbingKevin" and a link to, a Google Earth resource for math teachers created by Thomas Petra.

Example Activities

  • Teaching Perimeter & Area with Google Earth - A sample lesson which incorporates GE with common mathematics lessons (Climbing Kevin, 2006).


  • - This site offers twenty (20) different lessons math teachers can do with Google Earth. The website is organized into four main categories: (1) Concepts; (2) Exploratory; (3) Project Based; (4) Measurement. The topics within these categories include the following: exchange rate, volume of solids, scientific notation, estimation, pictographs, line graphs, polyhedrons, networks, Sierpinski triangles, line patterns, spherical geometry, mazes & labyrinths, distances, complex area, fractal measurements, typhoons, as well as a SAR-related project.

Google Earth with Science Classrooms


Due to the mathematic nature of physics Google Earth readily offers many affordances to physics classrooms. The most impressive "physics" related tool within Google Earth is the Flight Simulator which gives users full control over one of two planes which are controlled by keyboard, mouse or joystick and obey all the laws of physics. Other uses for physics include using trigonometry to calculate the time of day, the angle of the sun, and the height and length of buildings in pictures. With the enhancements provided by user-generated KML/KMZ files, more advanced physics such as studying earth's magnetic field, investigating whether and seismic activity can be achieved as well.

Example Activities

  • Mapping Tsunamis - This lesson teaches students the basic factors which give rise to earthquakes and tsunamis. After exploring data in GE students then share in a discussion about science, technology and societal issues surrounding natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Tsunami Calculations - Using the placemark, ruler and layers tools this activity allows students to apply mathematical calculations to tsunami data from GE to see how longitude, latitude and ocean depth can impact the speed and severity of a tsunami.
  • Ocean Exploration - This activity shows how GE can be used to investigate the ocean as it is related to physics.


  • Google Earth in Physics - Click the image to access a video tutorial that explains some "physics" affordances of Google Earth.

Google Earth in Physics


Chemistry is one subject area that somewhat underserved by GE layers, extensions and available lessons online. Despite this fact, there are many ways to use existing layers to support learning about chemistry as well as some chemistry-related layers that related to the societal, technological and environmental aspects of chemistry.

Example Activities

  • Environmental and Air Pollution - This activity utilizes the "UK Air Pollution" layer available here and the "Human Impacts" layer to investigate air and water pollution, their causes and impact on life. The activity has students share their findings and discussions on an integrated discussion board.


As with chemistry, studying biology through Google Earth is best served by the multitude of layers that are available for the system. Multiple layers used in conjunction will allow students to link multiple seemingly unrelated biological and ecological information together and draw connections between things like pollution, animal population, animal behaviour like migration, population density and biological diversity.

Example Activities

  • Google Earth Biology Quizzes - This activity shows how a quiz in GE can be used to lead students on an interactive assessment while linking the content to in-class material.


Google Earth has many built-in astronomy and space tools that would lend themselves very well to application in an astronomy classroom. From the main toolbar the universe can be viewed from various astral locations including looking from an orbital view down at the Earth, Moon and Mars as well as looking up from Earth at the stars and constellations. These various views, coupled with tools such as the ruler, layers, image overlays, videos and placemarks could provide numerous topics for projects and assessments while exploring space and digital literacies.


While we could not hope to give this program due justice within 1800 words, we hope that the affordances we have presented will help teachers feel more comfortable in using this powerful and highly versatile tool in their math or science classrooms. Perhaps future students of ETEC 510 will be able to expand our entry into other classrooms, such as art, history, and literature.

Works Cited

Champ, H. (2009). 4,000,000,000. Flickr Blog. Retrieved February 28th, 2010, from

Claburn, T. (2010). Google Earth Gets Haiti Earthquake Imagery. Information Week. Retrieved March 2nd, 2010, from

Climbing Kevin. (2006). Teach Area and Perimeter using Google Earth. Retrieved February 28th, 2010, from

Hodaei, S. (2010). Schools Face controversy Over Youtube Spending. Retrieved February 26th, from

Teridman, D. (2005). Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica. CNET News. Retrieved February 26th, 2010, from

Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. (2010). Panoramio. Wikipedia foundation Inc. Retrieved February 26th, 2010,