7 Tips for Google Earth in the Classroom

Remember when Google Earth was a slow desktop program? Thank goodness it is now has a sleeker web version (earth.google.com/web) that is perfect for teaching geography. This is especially true for students using touchscreen Chromebooks. Additionally, the iTunes Store Google Earth app is great on iPads. Here are 7 tips for getting the most out of Google Earth in the classroom.

Tip # 1: Use Google Earth for Geology Concepts

Do you teach about volcanoes, plate tectonics, seafloor spreading, or other geology concepts? If so, click the ship steering wheel in Google Earth to access Voyager.

The steering wheel in the Google Earth toolbar opens Voyager: Interactive stories and maps.
Look for the steering wheel.

Then click “LAYERS” and enjoy some very useful content. Watch as I demonstrate:

Tip # 2: Use Google Earth for History

Google Earth Voyager has plenty of great content besides Geography. Click the steering wheel and click “HISTORY.” Each unit of content, called “stories,” leads students through an interactive map. PBS Learning Media authored five of the History stories. Watch as I demonstrate how to access Voyager History stories and the first two scenes of the Underground Railroad story:

Tip # 3: Find Voyager Stories

There are stories in each tab in Voyager. The tabs other than Layers and History are Editor’s Picks, Travel, Nature, Culture, Sports, and Education.

The tabs other than Layers and History are Editor's Picks, Travel, Nature, Culture, Sports, and Education. 

This content is very useful but challenging to find because there is no search function inside Voyager. Scrolling is the only option for finding stories in Voyager. The good news is the search in the Google Earth toolbar searches Voyager stories. At present, a search term has to match a term in the story title. Watch as I demonstrate:

Tip # 4: Learn More About Countries and Cities with Points of Interest

Search Google Earth for a country or city. The search will take you there on the map and add points of interest in the right part of the screen.

Points of interest in Google Earth.

Each point of interest comes with content. What a great way to introduce foreign places. Watch as I preview Tanzania’s points of interest:

Tip # 5: Use Google Earth to Measure, Distance, Area, and Perimeter

The ruler in the Google Earth toolbar is useful for showing students real-life applications for the geometry concepts they learn in math class.

The ruler tool in the Google Earth toolbar measures distance and area.

The ruler measures the distance between points on a line. It also creates shapes and displays their perimeter and area measurements.  On the iPad, there are buttons for copying that data:

Screen capture of a shape in Google Earth. There are buttons for copying the area and perimeter measurements.
Notice the “copy” icon to the right of the area and perimeter measurements.

One drawback of shapes in Google Earth is they cannot be saved. To level up using Google Geo Tools to teach geometry, have students create shapes in Google My Maps. This is a great way to teach scale and how maps can be distorted. For example, maps show Greenland to be about the size of Africa. Is that true? Make a copy of this Google My Map and have your students move the shape to find out.

  • Click the [    ] in the upper right corner to view this map fullscreen.
  • Click the three dots. Then click “Copy Map.”


Watch as I demonstrate using shapes in Google Earth and Google My Maps:

For more information on Google My Maps, please read my blog post, Google My Maps Tips and Tricks.

Tip # 6: Perfect Image Captures on the iPad

The camera icon in the Google Earth iPad app.
Notice the camera icon in the Google Earth iPad app.

Pressing the camera icon results in a screen capture of the Google Earth screen without toolbars:

A picture produced by the Google Earth iPad app.

This also works in the Google Earth Android app. Watch as I demonstrate the Android app.

Tip # 7, Your Anchor Activity: Use I’m Feeling Lucky for Anchor Activities

All done reading the first 6 tips? Great! The Google Earth toolbar has a dice icon. When clicked, it functions as “I’m Feeling Lucky” and takes students to a random location. What a great anchor activity!

The dice in the Google Earth toolbar Is
Roll the dice. Or to be more precise, click the dice.

When students say, “I’m done,” reply with “Great! Click I’m Feeling Lucky and share three things you learned about your random location with the class during the last five minutes.” Watch as I demonstrate using the “I’m Feeling Lucky” dice:

Thank you for reading this post! What Google Earth questions do you have? Please comment below or tweet me @TomEMullaney.

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Google My Maps Tips and Tricks

Google My Maps is a great tool for teachers and learners. Teachers can use it as an interactive platform to present lesson materials. Learners can use Google My Maps to document what they have learned.

For example, here is a Google My Map I created of Civil War battles in North Carolina for a Civil War digital breakout:

One of my favorite Google My Maps is this ingenious map someone made documenting every location in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:

To access Google My Maps, type mymaps.google.com into the browser. Unfortunately, My Maps does not appear in the apps launcher (AKA the waffle in the upper right of the screen in Gmail, Drive, and Classroom) so it makes sense to bookmark it or pin it to a Chromebook shelf.

Here is a brief overview video of using My Maps in which I make a map of Amsterdam and reference The Fault in Our Stars:

Use these tips and tricks to get even more out of Google My Maps.

Create in Google Drive

As I did in the video, create My Maps in Google Drive folders so they stay organized with other content for a given instructional unit.

Creating a My Map in a Google Drive folder.
Creating a My Map in a Google Drive folder

Change the base map

Scroll to the bottom of the legend to change the base map to one of nine different options. The default is “Map.” I am partial to “Simple Atlas” for historic maps.

Animated GIF demonstrating how to change the base map
Changing the Base map

Like a map? Copy it for yourself!

Click on the “NOT OWNED” tab in the My Maps home screen. You should see thumbnails of every Google My Map you have viewed and you don’t own, including the North Carolina battles and Always Sunny maps higher up in this post! Click on the three dots in the upper-right corner of the thumbnail to make a copy for yourself.

Animated GIF showing how to make a copy of a map
Make a copy of a map you like.

Explore the EXPLORE tab

Click on the EXPLORE tab to see Google My Maps other users have created. At the top is the top picks. I can’t lie – you will see a lot of Pokémon GO maps there.

Animated GIF of toggling between top maps in the Explore tab.
Click the arrows to toggle between Pokémon GO maps and more!

Scroll down to see staff picks to find some very interesting maps. This can inspire creative use of My Maps.

Animated GIF of scrolling to see more staff picks in the explore tab.
Scroll down to see more staff picks.

Open a My Map in Google Earth

Export the data from a My Map as a KMZ file. Leave all boxes unchecked to download:

Animated GIF depicting exporting a My Map as a KMZ file.
Export a My Map as a KMZ file. Leave all boxes unchecked.

Then go to Google Earth and enable adding KML/KMZ files in settings:

Enabling KML and KMZ files in Google Earth.
Click “My Places.” Then enable KML and KMZ files.

Then import the KMZ file:

Animated GIF depicting importing a KMZ file into Google Earth.
Click on “My Places” to import the KMZ from a hard drive or Google Drive.

Most data from the My Map will successfully convert to Google Earth, including pictures and text descriptions.

An image an description from Google My Maps in Google Earth.
An image an description from Google My Maps in Google Earth.

One caveat: According to Google, “Some custom icons and overlay images hosted on other websites won’t work.” The two maps in this post do not have custom icons, so their KMZ files import into Google Earth nicely. If the custom icon does not work in Google Earth, it will render like a red “X” similar to the one that appears for a wrong answer on Family Feud. Some custom icons do work though. The custom icons on this My Map of some San Francisco New Deal sites render correctly. That may be because the custom icons were created using image URLs.

Animated GIF of Google My Map data in Google Earth.
The custom icons render correctly. Notice the images and text from the My Map made it to Google Earth as well.

For more information on Google Earth, please read my blog post, 7 Tips for Google Earth in the Classroom.

Google Classroom integration…almost but not quite

The good news is that teachers can share maps so that students can view them and they can share a map so that all students can edit it. This is similar to settings for other Google Drive files in Google Classroom. The bad news is this is what happens when teachers try to make a copy of a My Map for each student in Google Classroom:

Animated GIF demonstrating that "Make a copy for each student" with My Maps does not work in Google Classroom.
Make a copy for each student does not yet work in Google Classroom.

I hope Google addresses this issue in the near future. In the meantime, My Maps is still a great tool for teachers and learners alike. If you would like to share your ideas about the Google My Maps, please comment below or tweet me at @TomEMullaney. Thank you for reading.

This is the Google My Maps icon image I used in the image for this post.