Easy, At-home Science: Scavenger Hunt and Geographic Navigation

Chances are you are already carrying around a great geographic learning tool in your pocket: a smartphone! Use your smartphone and simple materials at home to create a Scavenger Hunt your children will love and learn from!

Many smartphones have a Digital Compass as a basic utility. These compasses are easy to use and very accurate. They show Cardinal Directions (North, East, South, and West) and also show a digital dial with degrees. They have built in Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities and will show your current coordinates (longitude and latitude) in degrees, minutes, and seconds. Below the degree dial the compasses will show your heading, or the direction you are facing in degrees.  Add in a measuring tape and 30 minutes of advance planning time and you’ve got a fun and educational experience!

We run geographic scavenger hunts in every iSchool program, and just this week we did one as part of our Superheroes of Science After-School Program at Forestville Elementary School. I usually hide a prize (this week it was an oobleck art experiment) and work backwards to the starting point.  Rather than hiding the geographic clues, I hide activity slips that children use to earn their next clue. Then, I hand out the next geographic clue after children have completed the activity (this also allows me to modify on the fly).  This is what our Scavenger Hunt looked like this week:

This simple and quick worksheet encouraged children to solve math to figure out the clue. It spells “Fill a water bottle”

1. “Earn-it” Activity 1: Math

To get their first clue, children in the after-school class solved a math worksheet with a code on it. The code consisted of the numbers 1 to 26 that correspond with the letters of the alphabet. After solving each math problem and figuring out the letters, children followed the directions on the sheet.  (Given our hidden oobleck experiment, each child had to “Fill a water bottle.”) It was a fun way to get them doing math!

2. Clue 1: Cardinal Directions

The first geographic clue told students to go out the closest door on the north side of the school. They used the compass, holding it flat in their hands, to figure out where magnetic north is located. After orienting their bodies in the direction of north, they ran to the door.

3. “Earn-it” Activity 2: Out-of-the-box Geometry and Circles, plus collaboration

Taped to the north door of the school were directions for their next activity. Older students got a clue asking them to make a perfect circle out of flour with a diameter of 100 centimeters. Younger students were asked to make a perfect circle out of flour with a radius of 50 centimeters. Being outside, the inclusion of flour led to a bit of fun and some “ghostly” appearances. Along the way children learned about circles and their parts. I also provided measuring tapes and string (in the form of jump ropes) to help them finish the task. After helping the younger students figure out that the radius is always the same from the center of a circle, students worked as a team to finish their circles and earned their next clue.

4. Clue 2: Measurement and degrees plus teamwork

This next clue took a bit of advance preparation, so I kept it simple. It asked students to walk due north from the door for 14 feet, turn 90 degrees to the west, walk 60 feet, and turn 90 degrees to the south. I had hidden a map at the end of the path.  Given that our small tape measures only went to 12 feet, it took the children a bit of time to figure out how to work as a team, but with some encouragement, they used multiple tape measures held by multiple children to measure the distance and find the map.

5. “Earn-it” Activity 3: Reading a map

The map I brought is large and laminated and thus worked in this outdoor setting. The activity question was simple: “Find the country due south of Botswana”.  Not only did children scour the map looking for Botswana (and learning a bit about geographic locations of countries), they also learned about reading maps. At first children wanted to orient the map to face north so they could use the compass to find south, but after finding the compass rose they quickly figured out that was not necessary.

6. Clue 3: Cardinal Directions

The third clue asked students to find the easternmost bird house in the garden. After using the smartphone to orient their bodies to face east, children easily figured this one out.

7. “Earn-it” Activity 4: Biology and Spring

To earn their next clue, children had to find a sign of spring. A small tree was conveniently budding! We also discussed temperatures and bird sounds.

8. Clue 4: Bearings

This clue asked children to find a certain landmark in the distance that was at a bearing of 150 degrees. They took turns using the smartphone compass, holding it flat in their hands and turning the bodies slowly until they faced a direction that had a bearing of 150 degrees. They examined the distance to find the landmark and were off!

9. “Earn-it” Activity 5: Relaxation and Playground Energy

The clue landed them next to the playground, so children had to do two activities to earn their next clue. First they each modeled a relaxation technique that helps them become calm. Some did deep breathing or counting, and others modeled putting their heads down on their desks or lying down. Since the children were itching to get to the playground, their activity was related to the playground. Each student had to point out an instance where potential energy converts to kinetic energy or vice versa.  This “inspired” some swinging, sliding, and jumping!

10. Clue 4: GPS

I had hidden a basket of supplies to make colored oobleck and directions to use it to make Jackson Pollock-like art in the woods next to Forestville. The clue was the Geographic Coordinates of the hiding spot. I used my smartphone to take a screenshot of the coordinates.  This was the hardest clue for the children to figure out, as they had to figure out which coordinate would change (not degrees or minutes, but seconds due to the scale of the globe), and the direction in which to go to see the coordinates get to those that would match the clue.  But they found it!

It took me about 30 minutes to set up the scavenger hunt, working backwards. I carried tape, markers, measuring tapes, and my smartphone compass with me. Given the amount that children learned from this activity, as well as the fun experience it gave them, that set up time was worth it!