Get Your Class Outside

Nat Geo's Geo-Inquiry Method

Donnie Piercey - 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year - @mrpiercey

Geo Inquiry and Google Earth

What is Geo-Inquiry?

An integrated, project-based process that connects students to real-world questions, National Geographic explorers, and civic engagement. Think of it as a structure for authentic, project based learning.

So what are we going to learn?

  • Learn how to have students become advocates for their community through inquiry.

  • Learn how to visualize data & develop empathy for their community through apps like Google Earth

  • Most importantly: let's learn how to get our students outside and exploring again!

Things you'll need for today

  • Notebook, Sticky notes, Scrap Paper, etc

  • Pencils, Markers, Colored Pencils (or "Pencil Crayons" as they call them in Canada, which I think is delightful)

  • A phone, camera, etc

Nat Geo's Geo Inquiry Method

Yo! What is this thing? It sounds cool.

Geo Inquiry

phase 1 - Developing the Question: ask

Local Issues / Local Problems:

Geo-Inquiry begins by having the students come up with a QUESTION that they're going to answer by the end of the project. This could take the students anywhere from a week to the entire school year, it all depends on how you frame it.

Question must be some connection to place, so students are taught to think about the big three explorer mindset questions:

  1. Where is it?

  2. Why is it there?

  3. Why should I care?

Solid examples of Geo-Inquiry Questions

  • Where is the best location for a new middle school in our community and why?

  • How has gold mining shaped the history of our community?

  • How has human activity affected elk and pronghorn migration in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and what can be done to mitigate this impact?

Not So Great Geo-Inquiry Questions:

  • Where were the most important battles of WWI fought? (non-example)

  • Which state in the United States has the highest per capita GDP? (non-example)

For Younger Kiddos:

What role did/does _______ play in _______?

How does _____ affect ______?

Where should and why?

Why might … occur in [one location] but not [a different location]?

How can … develop a plan to …

Pro-Tip Student Question:

"If I gave you 10 minutes, could you find the answer to this question?"

"Uhhhhh.... yes..."

"Cool... go find another question."

image via Unsplash

Tech for Developing / Collecting a Question

Look for apps and tools that are more than just having students TYPE IN their question. Instead, have them share ideas through apps that allow for student feedback and refinement.

Padlet for brain storming

Drive for collaboration

FlipGrid for feedback

Minecraft Edu to Create Prototypes

Old school just because it's cool

Speed Task 1

Come up with an Inquiry Based Question and submit it on this padlet. Feel free to have some fun with this -- the more ridiculous, the better. Give some feedback on your "Classmates" ideas as to how to improve them.

Phase 2 - Get them outside: Collect

Finding the answer to the question...

...outside of the classroom


  • Come up with a list of "Need to Knows" before collection

  • Identify organizations or people in the local community who are experts in their question's field. Teacher becomes the guide by the side here.

Types of Data?

  • Identify what TYPE of data the students will be collecting:

  • statistics, surveys, informal observations, scientific measurements, interviews, photographs / images, videos, or field notes. All of these will be tied to their geographic location.

Plan should always include some type of map. This could be a...

  • Google Earth Project

  • ESRI Story Map

  • Google My Maps

  • Good ol' Paper and Pencil

Get out there!

Image via unsplash

Collecting Data in the Field:

  • "The Field" is anywhere out of the classroom.

  • For K-5, could be whole group, or individual on a Field Trip

  • For 6-12, could still be whole group, but a lot more autonomy given to independent projects.

Finding the Right Data Collection Tool:

  • If its whole group, I'd recommend a Google Form (it keeps everyone's data compiled in one place)

  • If collecting photo / video and the students are using their own devices, I recommend having the students download Google Photos and put together a photos album.

  • Why? Photos automatically creates a "heat-map" of any photos / images taken in a location. More on why to do this in the next section!

Speed Task 2

Go out into your backyard and take a photo that you'll use for your data collection.

You have ONE MINUTE! GO!

Phase 3 - Create the story: Visualize

The Importance of Visualizing Data:

  • For most students, this would be a ROUGH map of what you want to create. This can be edited later. The goal is to get the students to take their research and map it out.

  • The map can include videos, images, text, or anything else that can VISUALIZE the student research.

image via unsplash

What's the goal of this stage?

To teach students how to ask those deep inquiry questions about the data collection. In the elementary schools, this would be the HOW And WHY?

Other types of data Visualization

Image via National Geographic

Google Photo Album HeatMap

  • For example: if your students were documenting examples of plastic pollution in a field, have them take a photo of the trash, and Google Photos will track the locations of where the photos were taken.

  • Once the album is made, create a My Map from the photos album.

  • Automagical!

Types of questions you could ask your students to do based on their data:

  • Is there a linear trend in your data?

  • Is the data distributed evenly, in clumps, or randomly?

  • Does the data pattern follow any other trends?

    • Wind direction, access to better transportation, proximity to nearby businesses, etc.

After analyzing the data and asking questions, have students recreate their rough draft maps to a finish and polished copy.

Speed Task 3

Go in your backyard and record some quick notes about something in your backyard. We'll pretend that it's something you'll need for your inquiry based question. Once you're finished, come back and open up this map and add the exact location of where your notes were taken.


Phase 4 - Tell the Story: Create

Students take the data they collected, the questions they've asked, and the visualizations they've put together to tell the story from their question. Below are SOME digital suggestions -- with links to tutorials that others and myself have created -- that your students could use to tell their digital story.

...or just some good old fashioned pencil, paper, and a tri-fold board.

Pro-tip: Pick a tool that is device agnostic

Giving others access to the story is part of the process, and students will want to make sure that it works on as many platforms as possible.

What's next? A call to Act.

Sharing the story through a call to action:

  • Consider the original intent: who was this project for? Has the intended audience changed based on the data?

image via unsplash


Pro-tip: if your students put together a website for their Geo-Inquiry project, share what they create! Send it out on email blast to co-workers, social media networks, put it on a or a custom URL, and get a #campaign started. Don't forget to tag @natgeoeducation in any tweets promoting what your students put together.

Get the word out!

Poster Session

Once your students get their project off the ground, submit it to a conference or competition. Give them a chance to show off what they put together!

The Main Event

Roll out the red carpet and invite the community. Think a TED TALK for students. Don't forget to invite the community!

My actual classroom example

Geo-Inquiry - Mr. Piercey

This presentation is based off of the National Geographic Framework for Geo-Inquiry. If you want to learn more, Nat Geo offers a FREE Geo Inquiry and Project Based Learning Course several times a year. You can sign up to get notified of when it goes live here. They also have several downloads (posters, templates, etc) for you to access.

If you want a handy-dandy expanded PDF file of this presentation, click here.