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Google Earth is a virtual map tool that allows users to view specific parts of the earth, moon, mars, and sky through satellite technology and a 3D animation-like globe image. The program has many useful tools and allows users to perform tasks that involve any location on Earth from finding a specific house or building, to taking guided tours around foreign lands. Included in the newest version of Google Earth is the option to go below sea level to view land formations under large bodies of water.

The educational use of Google Earth has a very wide spectrum and appeals to students at virtually any grade level. This is due to the variation in complexity of the tools within the program. For example, elementary aged students can use the program to explore and find specific places by entering latitude and longitude coordinates whereas students at the university level can develop entire cities by placing three-dimensional buildings.

Google Earth can be downloaded to any computer or smartphone that has any of the following operating systems:
  • Windows 2000 or better (12.5 MB)
  • Mac OS X (35 MB)
  • Blackberry Storm
  • iOS (8.9 MB)
  • Linux (24 MB)

Related Theory

The Google Earth program and its intended uses are most closely related to the Constructivism learning theory because users must consult prior experience and knowledge in order to best learn how to use its many features. The Constructivist Theory is a learning theory that states individuals build upon or 'construct' new ideas and concepts that are based on past experiences. The learner builds or 'constructs' personal understanding by integrating new information with past. A new Google Earth user that is learning how to use the program on their own will most likely require prior knowledge in working with a computer program that has many different functions, search options, and tools. Google Earth works in conjunction with the Internet and having no experience with how the World Wide Web works could make using this program extremely challenging.

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Google earth is more than just a map, it is a free database of geographical information that can be transformed into various formats. One can explore National Parks, walk on the Appian Way, visit ancient Greece, or watch the migration patterns of monarch butterflies. There is also information on the constallations, the moon, and mars. Here are some applications:

  • Flight simulator- This feature allows you to fly around the globe by operating a simulated aircraft with either your mouse or another controller. You can choose between the F16 and the SR22 aircrafts.

  • Sky mode- Constellations, stars, galaxies and animations depicting the planets in their orbits are visable ingooglesky.jpg sky mode.

  • Street View- Google Earth provides 360° panoramic street-level views and allows users to view parts of selected cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas at ground level by using the mouse to click on photograph icons displayed on the screen in your direction of travel.

  • Ocean- This feature allows users to zoom below the surface of the ocean and view the 3D terrain beneath the waves. Click for information from leading scientists and oceanographers. Also find underwater terrain data for the Great Lakes.

  • Historical Imagery- This feature allows users to traverse back in time and study earlier external image 1277136173-nashville-flood-google-earth.jpgstages of many places. Researchers may find this useful for purposes that require analysis of past records of various places.

  • Mars- Google Earth includes a separate globe of the planet Mars that can be viewed and analyzed for research purposes. Maps include 3D renderings of the Martian terrain. There are also some extremely high resolution imagesgoogle-earth-mars-crater.jpg from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter camera that are of a similar resolution to those of the cities on Earth. Finally, there are many high resolution panoramic images from various Mars landers, such as the that can be viewed in a similar way to Google Street View. Interestingly enough, layers on Google Earth (such as World Population Density) can also be applied to Mars. Layers of Mars can also be applied onto Earth. Mars also has a small application found near the face on Mars. It is called Meliza, and features a chat between you and an automatic robot speaker.

  • Moon- Google Earth allows users to view satellite images of the moon. You can take a guided tour of different landmarks on the moon or follow the exact steps taken in the Apollo missions.


  • Tourist Destinations- Using Google Earth, the user can visit popular tourist destinations and get a small feel for what these attractions can offer.


  • Using Google Earth in the classroom as an educational tool can present similar issues to that of all technological and computer generated programs: reliability.
    • In order to function, there must be a strong Internet connection because of the large amounts of data being carried through the browser. If the Internet connection is weak or unreliable the program could run very slow, have missing information, or not work all together.
  • Though the program is interesting and has many unique uses, learning all of them is very time consuming.
    • Teachers will have to spend hours practicing and learning how to use the program in order to use it effectively in a lesson.

Special Guidance

Here are the keyboard controls for the flight simulator:

The historical data is not available for all places on the globe.

Google Earth has many features, affordances, and extensions that use specific terminology not commonly used by teachers. Here are some of the more important terms to help you better understand the potential for Google Earth in the classroom:
  • KML, KMZ & XML- These are the extension names of files that can enhance Google Earth's data. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language (the programming language used to create KML files); KMZ is the compressed version of KML. XML stands for Extensible Markup Language (the programming language used to create XML files, and the basis for the KML language). Both KML & KMZ files will enhance the data, layers, or features of Google Earth.
  • Layers- Layers in Google Earth are optional data which offer more information about a given geographical region. The stand alone free version includes 274 different layers that can be applied. They range from geographic data, to restaurants, to images, videos, panoramas, to statistical data. Click the image to see the entire list of layers available in the free version of Google Earth.
  • Placemarks- Were Google Earth a geography book or an atlas, a placemark would be the equivalent of a bookmark or a sticky-note. Placemarks allow users to save a place they've found on the earth, beneath the ocean, on the moon, or mars, so that they can return to it after they have closed down Google Earth. A placemark is represented by a yellow pin icon, and when double clicked offers information entered by the user, as well as coordinates of the placemark.

Current Research

In 1998, Al Gore launched the "Digital Earth Initiative" which strive to create a digital Earth in which one would be able to zoom in out to see continents, states, cities, and even individual streets in high resolution. This has seemed to be fulfilled with the launch of GoogleEarth in 2005. However, the "Digital Earth Initiative" soon disappeared from the governments agenda with private parties picking up the research. However, it is argued that GoogleEarth has not completely answered the Initiative as it is mostly a geological program and not a cultural one because the highest resolution resides in North America and Europe. It is hard to zoom all the way in to Africa, therefore one cannot become emerged in their culture via computer. However, upon further consideration, GoogleEarth has not entirely achieved Al Gore's dream. While there are many similarities, it is lacking many things (which in due time may come about) and it is driven by commerce.

Below is a table that shows the differences between Al Gore's concept of the Digital Earth and GoogleEarth:
Digital Earth
Grassroots effort of thousands of individuals, companies, researchers and
government organizations

Organic Internet-like growth

Government-sponsored testbed involving government, industry and academia

Data from “thousands of different organizations”
High-speed (10Gbps) networks

Huge mass storage requirements

Satellites providing imagery

Public access points for highest bandwidth access, e.g. museums
(“some level of…”) interoperability enabling data transfer between
disparate systems

Interface; principal application
3D globe

Zoom in, out to multiple resolutions; fly through

A path between scientists’ results and the public, particularly regarding
environmental science

Virtual tour of museums

Personal compilations; email

Control overlays, including terrain


Collaboration tools for researchers

Generate and/or display model results, e.g. land use planning; ecological scenarios
Yes, display only
Virtual reality helmet, glove

Voice recognition
“Vast quantity”

Historical, insofar as possible

Public access and marketplace

Global “ 1 meter imagery”

Digital Elevation Model (“visualize terrain”)

Land cover and land use

Plant and animal species’ distribution

Soils, climate

Real-time weather

Physically sensed (e.g. GLOBE)


Political boundaries

Yes, for some countries
Other content
Newsreel footage

Oral histories



Lesson Ideas

Google Earth is an excellent educational tool that can turn a geography lesson into an international excursion. Students can be assigned to research locations and information about cities, landmarks, natural disasters, or a place that has important current events around the globe using latitude and longitude coordinates. Below is a video that elaborates on more lesson ideas that require researching specific information about a place on earth.

Architecture students can benefit enormously from using this product. An instructor at a high school or college level can give students assignments to make 3D buildings that will be placed on the globe through Google Earth and Sketchup. Students must first find a building anywhere in the world or in a specific region that they may or not be familiar with. Then, using formal dimensions and patterns, students can construct an identical model of the building and export it into Google Earth and place it over the existing image, thus creating a three dimensional building/structure. Not only do the students get to practice skills they will use in future professions but will contribute vital information about buildings throughout the world that can be used by other consumers.

Here is an image taken from Google Earth that shows 3D buildings that were created and placed on the map:
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Click here to download the newest version of Google Earth!

Is Google Earth, “Digital Earth?”—Defining a Vision by Karl E. Grossner
Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara