Google Earth as a database and map by student Ruth Zhang

Duke student Ruth Zhang participated in a Writing 20 class focused on Google Earth taught by Chris Erlien in the Thompson Writing Program; one assignment was to share ideas for teaching. Read all of their ideas at the class blog, Teaching (and Learning) with Google Earth. Here, we repost one student’s writing.

Student Ruth Zhang wrote about different ways to use Google Earth to teach science.

Google Earth now offers great potential for teaching and learning. A combination of database and visual map, it links data and media to specific location coordinates.

Google Earth’s appeal in education lies in its “layers,” which are compiled by topic and include text, links, and visuals. Keyhole Markup Language (KML), a simple code similar to RSS’s XML and ideal for classroom customization, comprises these layers. To encourage user input, Google has provided a KML tutorial and hosted the Google Earth Gallery and Google Earth Forum for third-party submission.

Using Google Earth to Teach the Sciences

Google Earth can display both detailed events and general data clusters. In studies of Earth and its populations, instructors in lecture or discussion may choose to support observations with visuals. Visualizations are important in the classroom; in addition to tables and graphs, instructors using Google Earth can refer to a few cases while preserving overall trends — an advantage critical to understanding the sciences.

The following three examples present Google Earth layers as possible classroom supplements.


In this Rosetta Project layer, world languages show up on the map as icons, which yield dialog boxes with sound clips and links when clicked. This collection is helpful in studying the development of languages. Students may find the embedded audio particularly useful for exploring linguistic similarities among related peoples. (from The Rosetta Project)

Evenki language recordingEvenki language recording


This United Nations-sponsored layer displays refugee camps worldwide, showing dates, statistics, and images. Students and instructors can analyze the situations of persons displaced by catastrophe. To make a strong impact, the map icons also help visualize the distance of the camps from the refugees’ home region. (from UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency)

unhcrRefugees from Sudan in Treguine, Chad


This layer shows the path of avian flu (H5N1) using Google Earth’s history feature. As a user drags the slider, various icons pop up, representing human and animal cases. There are also statistics and links to the World Health Organization regarding each outbreak. Instructors can use this layer to document the spread of H5N1 over time, perhaps applying it as a model to pandemics in general. (from Declan Butler, Nature)

H5N1 outbreak among animals in Pakse, LaosH5N1 in animals in Pakse, Laos

Beyond Analysis: Creating in Google Earth

Aside from its analytical features, Google Earth also has powerful interactive options. Instructors who incorporate visuals and graphs into teaching can create guided tours to organize lectures. They can even create their own customized layers using simple KML. Alternatively, many layers are already available in the user-submitted Google Earth Gallery and Google Earth Forum.

Creating educationally in Google Earth is not limited to instructors. Students may enjoy an alternative to the immortal paper or PowerPoint by making layers to display the results of their research. They can incorporate all the necessary figures and text into points defined by location. At Duke, students have already used Google Earth in projects, proving it an engaging medium for academic findings.


Google Earth possesses many useful features that make it ideal for analysis and presentation in education. Its visual attributes represent data efficiently, and the customizability of the interface makes it a valuable tool in empirical, analytical education.

1 thought on “Google Earth as a database and map by student Ruth Zhang

  1. Tom

    I also liked this (now dated) H1N1 map. The idea of tracking the spread of a virus geographically, by carrier and at the same time being able to visually reference its genetic evolution really brought home the potential of Google Earth.

    When you start thinking of 3D data visualization plotted geographically and the ability to add time series data animations- all without any real programming knowledge- it really boggles the mind how many options and applications there are for this program.

    You’re probably aware of it butGoogle Lit Trips is a pretty interesting application of the program for certain literature courses.

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