Students learn SOLs while finding cache

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907 fifth graders participate in a 21st century-style scavenger hunt

By Tom Wilmoth

Owen Hughes and Addison Craft look intently at their GPS receiver. “Fifteen feet,” the device indicates. The two Forest Elementary fifth graders know they are close. They search in the bushes. Then the grass. They look behind the sign. There it is — they’ve found some geocache.

    They pull out a sticker, find where they are on the map and place it on that spot. Then, in an instant, they’re off again, looking for the next hidden “treasure.”

    Call it an electronic scavenger hunt, one that 907 fifth graders in Bedford County Schools have participated in this year.

    “It’s more about the find than what’s in the container,” points out Debbie Newman, Stewartsville Elementary’s  Instructional          Technology Research Teacher. Newman, last year’s Teacher of the Year for Bedford County Schools, began the program at her home school and it’s now part of the curriculum for the entire school system. Newman and Bethany Butcher, the ITRT at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, began taking the program to Bedford County students in November. Students are given 10 geo cache sites to find and have about an hour to search. Each time they find a site, they put a sticker on the map they’re given to indicate the find.

    Students have searched in snow, rain and wind this year. Forest Elementary fifth graders were the last to get their turn.

    Newman started the program under the title “Learn it, SOLve it, Find it.”  It incorporates Standards Of Learning units from math, literature and U.S. history. The unit includes learning about using grids, working with a smart board, writing about their experience and reading about John Harrison, whose sea clock was an attempt at solving the problem of longitude. They use Google Earth to help map out their cache sites.

    In order to save time for the students, the coordinates for the hidden cache were pre-programmed into the GPS units. Newman said not only are the students learning how to use a new piece of technology, but they’re also being exposed to a new hobby — geocaching.

    Both Newman and Butcher have been participating in geocaching for some time. The first geo cache was hidden in 2000 and now there are more than 800,000 caches hidden all over the United States. Newman, herself, has hidden a cache in Roanoke for those participating in the hobby to find.

    “For most of the kids it’s the first time they’ve ever held a GPS receiver,” Newman says of exposing them to the hobby. Many of the school system’s receivers were purchased by the Bedford Area Educational Foundation. Virginia Tech has also loaned the school system a set of GPS units.

    Butcher said it’s important to help teach the students 21st century technology skills. “They have a sense of accomplishment,” she said of the geocaching unit. “Finding that cache is a real self-esteem boost.”

    And, she said, the unit “takes the classroom out into the school yard.”

    Newman, who began geocaching with her husband in 2003, got Butcher involved in the hobby a couple of years ago. “We love it,” she said of her own family participating. “We go out all over.”

    Newman said geocaching has taken her family to places they wouldn’t have normally visited. “It’s amazing how creative people are,” she said of the caches that are hidden throughout the country. “It’s a world out there that you didn’t even know existed.”

    Her family has found close to 300 caches in five years in several different states. If they’re taking a trip, they’ll go on the geocaching Web site (www.geocaching.com) to get the coordinates of sites along the way. Stopping to find the sites helps break up the trip. But you don’t have to go far to participate. There are numerous caches hidden in this area; Lynchburg alone has more than 30.

    According to the Web site geocaching “is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.”

    Both Newman and Butcher said hunting for geocache exposes participants to “finds” they might never have visited — from parks to historical sites.

    “It gets you outdoors,” Butcher said of the hobby. “It takes you to a lot of neat places.”

    In addition to exposing the students to a new technology, the unit for the fifth graders also promotes teamwork and problem solving. She said it’s worked well. “You have a vision on how you want something to work; well it’s worked out ten times better.”

    And whatever the weather, the students haven’t wanted to come inside.

    Ed Hoisington, director of technology with Bedford County Schools, said exposing the fifth graders in the county’s 15 elementary schools to this educational tool has been a major accomplishment.

    Julia Howell and Jeanine Minnick would tend to agree. With time running out on their hunt Thursday, the Forest Elementary students worked hard to find one more cache, before they had to quit.

    “All kids like treasure hunts,” Newman said. “This is just one using a GPS receiver.”