Using Google Earth to Teach Math

Rebecca Maxwell


Every math teacher knows the difficulty in trying to convince their students why math matters. It is often hard to see that math is useful in everyday life. One math teacher, Thomas Petra, is tackling this problem head on with his new website Real World Math. The site provides math lessons for grades 5-10 based on Google Earth.

Petra developed the website in order to help students apply actual math concepts that they see in the textbook to real world situations. He has taught math for over 25 years, and at every grade level, he runs into doubtful students. Word problems, in particular, are often contrived and not applicable to the lives of teenagers.

In order to fix this, Petra created his website that takes an inquiry approach to real problems in Google Earth. Teachers have access to lessons and students can find Google Earth downloads for over 30 activities and instructional materials. Petra wanted his students to learn new skills like problem solving and critical thinking on their own terms.

Geography Lessons with Math

One lesson, for example, helps students understand the formula for distance and even practice it by examining the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.

Petra mapped the 22 checkpoints and had students calculate the time it takes for their team to arrive at each stop. They also drew cards along the way that either increased or decreased their time, forcing the students to recalculate.

Screenshot showing a map with the  Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. Screenshot from Real World Math.
Project based learning using the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. Screenshot from Real World Math.

Another lesson put his algebra students into teams and asked them to use search and rescue patterns for look for a missing paddler. To help them understand variables, Petra did not give them much information at first.

The students had to figure out what real world variables would affect the search like how far fast coast guard boats could travel. They then developed a search map using Google.

Petra’s strategy worked. For the first time, he had students coming to math class early. Plus, the students got hands on experience through active learning. The algebra students took a field trip to the Coast Guard station, discovering real Coast Guard procedures and how search and rescue equipment works.

This approach can be applied to other disciplines as well. Another website, Google Lit Trips, was designed by Jerome Berg. The site allows students to follow the travels of literature’s well-known characters on interactive Google Earth maps. Each stop includes more resources about the place as well as the book.


“Looking for Real-World Math Problems? Try Google Earth!”

“Real World Math.”


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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on

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