GPS devices help make lesson stick

SALIDA -- When teaching his students about finding the area of a rectangle, Salida Middle School teacher Brian Ferguson decided to make the lesson 3-D.

He drew a rectangle on the board, showing the math equation for area: length times width. Then he distributed hand-held GPS devices to his sixth-grade students, and the group walked to the school's football field.

In pairs, the students walked the perimeter of the football field while the Global Positioning System receivers tracked their trail. Bianca Sucala and Stacy Alvarez walked 0.2 miles and the GPS calculated the field's area at 52,423 feet.

"It's different from looking at the chalkboard," Stacy said.

Most students were glad to get out from behind their desks. They called the classroom setting "boring" and were more than eager to spend time on freshly cut grass in the sun.

After another Salida Middle School teacher earned a grant to pay for the Garmin eTrexs, Ferguson picked up on the technology and uses the GPS tool to teach math and science. It's one of many examples of tools teachers use in the classroom.

The eTrexs cost about $100 each. Salida Middle has had 19 eTrexs for four years, and periodically loans them out to technology groups from the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

With the GPS devices, students learn more detail about earthquakes, estimating, converting acres, feet and meters, and how global positioning works.

"Instead of just talking about it in the book, I can take them outside," Ferguson said. "It gives them a different perspective."

He uses the GPS devices a couple times a year for two or three days straight. In the fall, he gave students latitude and longitude coordinates for the campus flagpole and football field and they had to find which landmark matched the numbers.

And, he added, GPS technology is becoming so prevalent with cell phones and car systems that give driving directions that students should know how GPS works.

Once Ferguson's students were done walking the football field's outer boundaries, they returned to their room and wrote down their GPS's estimate of the field's area. The next day, the students looked at the field's length and width, multiplied the two to see if the total matched the GPS figure.

"It cements those concepts you're teaching in the classroom and gives them real world experience," Ferguson said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.