Around the World with Google Earth

“Find a space anywhere you can see the smart board,” Head Teacher Rachel Strate instructed her Class 3 students on a recent morning. Wasting no time, they quickly settled into comfortable spots on the carpet and eagerly turned their attention to a special visitor standing next to the board.

The guest, Laura Slabin, who is a parent in the class, was invited to Room 37 to talk about her fascinating job in technology — and to take the students on enlightening adventures around the world.  
“I work at Google,” began Ms. Slabin, as the colorful Google logo appeared on the screen. Through her former position in the Google Maps division, she became an expert in their far-reaching sister application, Google Earth, which uses satellite imagery to offer three-dimensional representations of virtually any region on planet earth. 

“Google Earth lets you explore most of the world, except China,” the speaker noted. “We don’t have much data about China because of [internet] censorship.”

For this particular presentation, Ms. Slabin decided to start in Africa, which the students have been studying in their homerooms. She opened Google Earth’s “voyager stories,” which functions like an interactive digital magazine, and typed “elephant” into the search bar.

With this command, the image of the earth spun dramatically around, zooming in on the second-largest continent. An article offering an overview of African and Asian elephants popped up alongside a gallery of photographs and videos of these majestic mammals. With another click, the earth rotated again and landed back in time to 6000 B.C. when “elephants were everywhere.” She began clicking again, and the students, transported to ancient North Africa, heard a telling news story about ivory loss.

“See, it’s flying us from place to place,” Ms. Slabin explained. Transfixed, the students watched intently as the earth turned once more to focus on a satellite map of Kenya from the mid-1970s, with the accompanying article, “Africa Loses 50% of Its Elephants in Five Years,” then to the Samburu National Reserve, where they met an elephant named Habiba, who was fitted with a GPS tracking collar to help researchers protect her and her fellow herd members. 

With the help of Google Earth’s educational voyager stories, the students observed, they were able to investigate elephants through the lens of history, geography, biology and climate change, deepening their understanding and curiosity in boundless ways. “It’s an interesting tool to learn what’s happening around the world,” said Ms. Slabin, adding that there is no limit to the topics young people can probe with the support of such technology.

“Now let’s leave Africa and fly around the world,” announced Ms. Slabin. With eyes glued to the smart board, Google Earth zoomed back out and embarked on a journey across land and water to yet another corner of the globe. As the satellite images honed in on detailed views of streets, buildings and public spaces, a lively chorus of oohs and ahs rose from the students. 

“That’s Chapin!” one excitedly exclaimed. Indeed, The Chapin School, Carl Schurz Park and other familiar places along the East River were brightly illuminated on the screen. 

“Now, what’s someone’s favorite place [besides Chapin]?” she asked the class. 

“The Museum of Ice Cream!” one girl offered. Ms. Slabin entered this information into the search bar. Seconds later, facts and figures about this new museum in SoHo filled the screen. Incorporating these two examples, she showed the class how to add Chapin and the Museum of Ice Cream to a sample research project using Google Earth. “You can do lots of fun and creative things like this,” she pointed out. 

Before this special visitor said goodbye to Class 3, she graciously posed for a group photograph with the students, Ms. Strate and Associate teacher Courtney Screen. As they held up the blue and white Google Earth stickers Ms. Slabin handed out, it was clear that these inquisitive scholars were looking forward to discovering more about their world by unleashing the vast possibilities of this exciting application.