2 Days @ Google: Geo Teachers Institute

Google is an interesting and unique technology company. Not only has it created an industry based on web search (which it basically has a monopoly on), but it has expanded into other unique fields. From cell phones to online word processing, selling advertisements to self-driving cars, Google’s scope and reach has grown exponentially over the last ten years.

It should be of no surprise that Google has expanded into education.  It does this by offering technology tools and services such as Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks, but it also offers professional development and opportunities to network with other educators across the globe.  My first experience with Google in this regard was when I became a Google Certified teacher in 2009.  Since then I have led a multitude of conferences and training a based on Google’s tools, but with the intent to show other educators how to think differently about teaching, learning, and curriculum.


I recently had an opportunity to head to Mountain View, California – home of the Google campuses – to attend the Geography Teachers Institute.  This two day event was focused on exposing teachers to different geographic tools created by Google.  More than that, it was a chance to think about our educational place in the world and how we as educators can connect our kids learning to a global community.

Day 1

A short night’s sleep caused by a late night flight  led to an early morning.  This did not dampen my excitement for the first day of the Geo Institute however.  Google’s campuses inspire the type of creativity and enthusiasm for dedication to work every employer should use.  Granted, it’s a little harder to do when you’re a public school district and not a billion dollar company, but I think the culture can still be adapted in a lot of ways.  When the opening session started, we were reminded of a quote from Larry Page that you should “always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.”  This resonated with me.  How often in education do we truly get excited for what we do?  Regardless of your position in the district, we ought to be excited about the work we’re doing for kids, otherwise, why are we doing it?  The goals of the Geo Institute are to discover, learn, and create.  I tried to keep this in mind throughout the two days I was there, and, as a learner I realized that if I couldn’t do one of the three, then that was on me as a learner, and not the presenters.  The rest of the day (aside from amazing food and bike rides on the multi-colored bikes strewn all over the campuses) was broken down into different sessions.  Here’s my quick snapshot of the sessions I attended.



Session 1 – Google Earth Engine

This session was led by a “Googler” about the possibilities and the power of the Google Earth Engine.  In a nutshell, the Google Earth Engine is a catalog of data with access to over 40 years of satellite imagery.  Google uses scientific data to analyze this data and make sense of the satellite imagery.  This has been used from a wide range of things from analyzing deforestation patterns around the world, tracking diseases, and monitoring urban sprawl.  Honestly, a lot of it was over my head and I’m not sure that I understood it well enough to help a teacher use it effectively.  I’m not sure that it’s ready for prime time for the average educator to use in class because it’s not that efficient or user friendly at the moment, but when/if it becomes more accessible, it can be used as a powerful tool for synthesis and analysis of data that carries real world consequences.

Session 2 – Storytelling with Tour Builder

Tour Builder was the best thing I learned at the institute.  About five years ago when I was in the classroom teaching social studies, I had my students build maps in Google Maps, insert pictures, draw lines for travel, and more.  This is like that, but it’s cleaner, well built, and works really, really well.  I had all sorts of visions on how I could have teachers use this tool across all curriculum areas, elementary and secondary.


Day 2

Session 1 – Google Maps Engine Lite

There are more parts to Google Maps than you think.  99% of the population uses Google Maps to find their route to work, check traffic, or look up a new coffee shop.    Google Maps Engine Lite  allows you to do this, but it also allows you to build maps of your own.  One of the handiest features of this is the ability to import data from a spreadsheet that can be automatically mapped in a Google Map.  It’s a really cool and useful tool.  I have a little experience using GME Lite, so I was looking for something a little more powerful.  I got that and more during the next session.

Session 2 – Fusion Tables

Fusion Tables allow you to import a lot of data and manipulate it so it will affect a map the way you want to (that explanation probably covers about 5% of what Fusion Tables is actually capable of, but it was so in depth and awesome, my brain couldn’t keep up with the learning as I was thinking of ways I could use it).  If Storybuilder was the most satisfying to learn during the Institute, Fusion Tables was the thing that inspired me the most and made me want to dig deeper.  I can see a lot of applications to how this could be used in all types of classes and even at the district level.


I always enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about topics I’m interested in.  Google does a tremendous job of presenting their tools and explaining it’s application in classrooms, usually leveraging current classroom teachers and educators in the process.  Since all of these tools are free to use for educators (let me repeat: they’re free tools), it never feels like a sales pitch.  The thing that nurtures me the most, however, is the opportunity to spend time with like minded colleagues in the field of education and hear their thoughts about the possibilities education has to change children’s lives.  That’s something I got in spades.  The Geo Institute was an amazing time that nurtured me as a learner and raised enough provoking ideas to fuel my desire to keep learning and sharing more.



Analysis: Google Teacher Academy

At the beginning of Dec. (’09) I attended the Google Teacher Academy in Washington D.C. My intent on going was to: A) learn more about the offerings of Google and gain a better understanding of how I could use Google apps in my 8th grade U.S. history class, and, B) pick the brains of fellow educators from around the country who are also doing great things with technology in their classrooms.

Worth it. Totally worth it.

The entire experience was the best professional workshop I’ve attended. Ever. Unlike a lot of workshop/conferences I’ve been to, GTADC equipped me with tools I can use in my classroom today, and it allowed me the creativity to think about how I could implement these skills into my curriculum.

Some of the highlights:

  • I teach 8th grade U.S. history, so the implementation of Google Maps AND Earth was phenomenal.  The point is not to just show students places on the earth, but to interact with them and expand them.  A presentation on Google Lit Trips sealed the deal for me.  Instead of just showing where battles of the Civil War were, I plan on having students add details into Earth about the surrounding areas and putting the battles in chronological order.
  • Speaking of the Civil War, how cool would it be to see a 3D modeling of Antietam, Gettysburg, or any other battle site of the Civil War?  SketchUp would allow me (or the students) to create one of these and bring the battlefield to them.
  • In past years I’ve set up a wiki from PBworks for a collaborative project where students research different events that followed the writing of the Constitution.  This year, I’m determined to use Google Sites.  My students already have Google Accounts, so there’s really no point in using a new service where they’d have to remember a brand new login and password they may use only once.  Plus, since their login will work with Google Maps, Docs, etc., there’s near limitless possibilities for embedding these existing tools into their own site page.
  • Since I don’t teach math, I’ve stayed away from using Google spreadsheets a lot because well, math is icky.  Really, it is….  After having a grand tour of it however, I’m ready to sing its praises.  While I’m not too interested in plotting and graphing points along an X and Y axis or managing different mathematical formulas (icky, like I said), I am interested in seeing different statistics from different countries over time.  Life expectancies, GDP, literacy rates, etc., are all different things one could graph into a Google Spreadsheet.  AND THEN, you can insert a gadget into that spreadsheet to make it look really cool and give it some animation over time.  AND THEN, you can insert that spreadsheet into a site or have multiple students collaborate on it.  Really cool stuff (and not icky at all).
  • Because of a generous grant in our district, I will soon be receiving a classroom set of iPod Touches.  In between guest speakers and breaks at GTADC, I spent a lot of timing picking the brains of teachers (like him and him) who know what they’re talking about and teachers who can help me make this leap.  Although it wasn’t sponsored  by Google, networking with so many fellow educators from other points on the map was really encouraging and inspiring.

I could go on and on about the awesome things I experienced, but sooner or later I’d run out of bullet-points.

The last thing I’ll say, is that before attending, I was skeptical.  And perhaps maybe even a little cynical, and I know I’m not the only educator out there who’s ever had this sentiment. Even though I wanted to go and applied to go, I was leery of drinking the Google Kool-Aid and having them use me as a conduit to hook my young and impressionable students into using their free products for life.  After I got there and went through the process, it became evident to me that I should really use these Google Apps for Education for what they are: products (FREE products mind you) to help students become engaged and learn.  What’s wrong with that?  Why is the outcry not as loud for text book publishers who have been price gouging school districts for decades?  Microsoft has been doing this for years, and even Apple fanboys have to admit that Apple’s expansive play into education is rooted in turning a profit first and providing an educational experience second (seriously, if nobody made any money in it, no company would ever bother with us plebes in the lowly public sector).  So, if Google is going to offer me and my students something for free to make their learning experience that much better, I’ll take it.

After all, when I was in high school we only had Coke machines, and now I prefer Pepsi.  Turns out I can make decisions for myself.  Who knew?