Bringing Earth Observation to Classrooms


Bringing Earth Observation to Classrooms—The Importance of Out-of-School Learning Places and E-Learning

by Lisa Dannwolf,  Tobias Matusch ,Johannes Keller, a Redlich, Alexander Siegmund

Viewing the Earth from above has fascinated people at least since the Apollo mission in the 1960s. Today, satellite images have made their way into the news and media, but the potential of using satellite images in the classroom has not yet been exhausted. Teachers often lack the technical knowledge of Earth observation (EO) or the technical requirements in schools.

The Geo:spektiv e-learning platform used provides the opportunity to integrate EO into curricula as well as current environmental- and space-relevant topics. This study analyses the driving forces that determine the motivation of students and which factors contribute to the success of an e-learning platform. The basis for this study is a Geo:spektiv module about the endangered rainforest, established at an out-of-school learning place and designed for students in secondary education. A survey of 281 students on their motivation and learning behavior showed, that in addition to the topic and level of difficulty tailored to the students’ needs, the design of the modules, simple navigation, and the use of multimedia content are vital. Despite the small sampling size and restricted geographical location of sample selection, the results of this study can contribute to better integration of digital geo-media in school lessons.

In recent decades, the popularity of digital geo-media technologies increased to an extraordinary level. Geo-spatial technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS), Earth observation (EO) and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) applications with portable geo-tools are widely and used in our society on a daily basis. The growing number of applications shows that digital geo-media are one of the central technologies of future societies. EO, as a central part of this, offers a large, yet unexhausted potential for educational purposes [1]. Based on the emergence of many EO satellites, almost all areas of the Earth´s surface can be observed in high spatial and temporal resolution. Therefore, EO data have become particularly significant for various scientific applications

In terms of educational use, manifold geographical and environmental topics implemented in school curricula can be explored by using EO data. Awareness of key global issues in the 21st century, such as urbanization, decreasing biodiversity, environmental hazards and food security, can be enhanced by using satellite imagery. In particular, their graphic representation and timeliness demonstrate their didactic capability [1]. The student-centered and student-adapted use of digital geo-media in classrooms helps students to improve their spatial thinking, orientation competency, and expertise in the treated topic [3,4,5]. For many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, spatial thinking is an important cognitive skill [6]. Teaching with digital geo-media not only aids in building important competencies but can also promote a fascination in EO and can support interest in STEM disciplines [7,8].

Due to the growing importance of geo-spatial technologies in a large number of occupational fields and their potential in a competency-orientated curriculum, digital geo-media are embedded in federal school curricula in countries such as Germany, the UK and Switzerland [9,10,11]. To capitalize on EO, teachers need EO-specific technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK)—the knowledge needed to use EO technology with suitable content in a student-adapted way [12,13]—and proper technical infrastructure. Despite dynamic development in the EO market and its establishment in the curricula, EO is not yet firmly embedded in the field of teacher training. For this reason, EO-specific TPACK is not common knowledge [14,15,16]. Furthermore, required technical equipment, such as the nationwide availability of WIFI, and adequate equipment, is still lacking in Germany [17]. The latter is supposed to be tackled through the German strategy for digitalization in schools [18].

In a fast-developing sector such as EO, training is necessary to keep up to date [19]. In recent decades, many new, even freely available, tools for analyzing EO data were developed for experienced user groups (e.g., QGIS, SNAP, and the Science Toolbox Exploration Platform). In addition, a wide range of state-owned providers (e.g., the DLR and ESA), research institutes such as universities, and private institutions (e.g., Tama Group and Geo University) offer e-learning courses, massive open online courses (MOOCs) [20], and face-to-face trainings [21] on EO topics for advanced users groups and for higher education students. Consequently, in recent years, various attempts have been made to develop materials and teaching models for non-experts such as teachers and students. Intergovernmental organizations, space agencies, universities and institutes offer a wide range of platforms and training courses addressing students of different ages. Projects such as YCHANGE and EO4GEO aim to improve competences in EO at the European level. YCHANGE (YCHANGE—Young Scientists as Change Explorers ( offers free learning material in six different languages for different school classes and EO4GEO (EO4GEO—Skills development and capacity building in the EO ( bridges the gap between EO, geo-information and education through collaboration between various European partners [22]. Other international initiatives such as Eduspace and the various European Space Education Resource Offices (ESEROs) support the use of satellite imagery for educational purposes at the primary and secondary school levels in cooperation with national partners [23]. While teacher training has a long-term effect on the implementation of EO in schools, out-of-school learning places and ready to use material offer opportunities for teachers to include EO in classrooms, even if their EO-specific TPACK is lacking.

Out-of-school learning places can offer students new insights into methods, materials, and objects, which cannot be used or analyzed in classrooms. If students can work with methods, materials, and objects in out-of-school locations, such visits may arouse the interest of students in a topic and increase their methodological competence [24]. EO is a topic in several museums (e.g., Deutsches Museum and Deutsches Museum flight yard Schleißheim), but often reduced to the technical aspects of taking aerial photographs and satellites. At the Heidelberg University of Education, the GIS-Station, as a competence center and out-of-school learning place for digital geo-media, has been around since 2009, aiming to combine research, teacher training, and education by offering courses on topics in digital geo-media for students and teachers. Other methods of bringing EO into classrooms include e-learning and digital materials. Initiatives in this field range from interactive, web-based learning modules including digital materials such as FIS (FIS—Remote Sensing in Schools ( [15,25] and augmented-reality apps such as Columbus Eye (Colombus Eye App ( [26] up to e-learning platforms (Geo:spektiv (Earth observation for adolescents—Geo:spektiv ( with web-based EO application (BLIF (BLIF—Focus on Remote Sensing ( The last three initiatives offer ready to use materials to teachers in order to conveniently integrate EO into their school lessons. Websites such as Google Maps, Google Earth, and Bing-Maps grant easy access to integrate satellite images in lessons. The simple usage of satellite images merely as a substitute for topographic maps excludes many EO applications, whereas services such as FIS and BLIF offer students the possibility to use interactive EO applications such as false-color composites, classifications, and the usages of indices such as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI).

The use of geo-information technology does not automatically lead to higher learning success among students [27,28]. However, student-centered approaches facilitate an increase in student motivation [29], expertise [4], and specific competencies, such as spatial thinking [3]. Furthermore, different studies have indicated the positive effects (e.g., on performance, social presence, and enrollment rates) of using online learning resources according to gender differences in STEM education [30,31].

The learning success of students depends on their socio-cultural background, their level of general intelligence, and their teachers. In addition, motivation, self-concept and the absence of fear have a noticeable influence [32]. In terms of e-learning, motivation becomes a main factor in the success of learners. Motivation, itself, can be divided into extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, and amotivation [33].

While extrinsic motivation is more restricted and artificial, intrinsic motivation is self-determined and autonomous and, therefore, more sustainable for long-term learning [34]. Ryan [34] further developed the concept of self-determination, pointing out that interest, enjoyment, autonomy, and perceived competence are important factors that influence intrinsic motivation [34,35]. Based on this theory, Wilde et al. [36] developed the short scale of intrinsic motivation (KIM), an easy to use measuring instrument for students’ intrinsic motivation during an activity [36]. A high level of intrinsic motivation, indicates that students feel successful. This is an important factor for their learning success [32].

As mentioned above, the implementation of EO in classrooms is embedded in many curricula and comprises many added values and opportunities. However, there are many constraints in using such technologies in schools, including a lack of EO-specific TPACK among teachers as well as a lack of technical equipment. There is a need to highlight the factors that influence the successful use of diverse learning applications, how to increase the quality of these applications, and how to consolidate appropriate didactic concepts. This study reveals two available approaches to implementing EO in classrooms: (1) out-of-school learning places and (2) EO-specific e-learning platforms. With a focus on secondary education, the presented study describes how to successfully implement EO and digital geo-media with topics relevant to the curricula. First, an out-of-school learning place for digital geo-media is presented. Second, Geo:spektiv as a representative e-learning platform with its module ‘Rainforest in Danger’ is presented. Based on a standardized questionnaire completed by n = 73 students in secondary education, a detailed examination has been carried out on the motivation of students, with respect to design, level of difficulty, and interest in satellite images of the module. To cross check and validate our detailed results, we analyzed and compared the factors that influence the successful use of two additional Geo:spektiv learning modules (n = 208) among secondary school students.

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