• Winnipeg teacher showing her students how to use GPS

    Sandy Welbergen showing one of her students how to use GPS. (Photo: Sandy Welbergen)

Sandy Welbergen loves geocaching, but especially loves sharing her passion for discovery with her students. She has been teaching for about 15 years and currently instructs grades 5/6 at Beaumont School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she uses geography as a lens through which kids can learn about their own communities and understand the local issues that affect them. Outside the classroom, Welbergen has served on the board of the Manitoba Geocaching Association for six years as their training coordinator, and despite stepping aside this year, she is still involved with the community. Recently, she has been helping out the Assiniboine Park Zoo with a big geocaching event set for September 30th, 2017. Here, she talks about how geocaching plays into her pedagogical approach. 

How do you approach teaching geography?

When I first started, I really focused more on geocaching and GPS, getting kids to know their neighbourhood. I ran it as a club. At that time, I was at another school, quite a small school, so it was a really great way to connect with all the kids and get to know the community. About six years ago, I moved to Beaumont School, where there was already a really well established extracurricular program so I wasn’t able to geocache with kids the same way. I started to look for other ways that I could integrate my love of geography into the classroom. That’s when I started doing more Google Earth, playing with Story Maps and getting to know ArcGIS, having the kids looking at their community, getting to know about where they’re from and what issues affect them here.

How did your interest in geocaching start?

I actually read about geocaching in an inflight magazine and I thought, ‘This sounds cool, I’ve never heard of this before’. I was in education and I had not been in the geography field for some time and I thought that this was a way for me to dabble in it again. I got a hold of the Manitoba Geocaching Association and I asked their training coordinator if he could show me the ropes. Generally, I’ll do a bit more of the “fake” geocaching, where I’ll set up caches in the school yard and connect them to the curriculum.

What do the students take away from these experiences?

I hope they take away a love for the outdoors. I think sometimes kids develop an “allergy” to the outside or they think all learning has to happen inside. I want them to learn perseverance, to observe their environment. We actually use the GPS quite a bit for estimating distance. I want them to understand how GPS and GIS work, basically how the environment can affect what’s happening around you.

We released “travel bugs” with my current class, which are trackable items that travel from geocache to geocache around the world. That’s been one of the most exciting things we’ve done. The kids research what they want as a goal for their trackable, give them a purpose and check in once and again to see how they’re doing. There’s one trackable I released with my previous school that went something like 26,000 km and travelled for seven years. That’s actually a great way for us to study the world. You really get to see migration patterns — most Winnipeggers go either to Toronto or Edmonton, and Mexico is a popular spot.

What have you learned as a teacher while doing this?

I’ve learned that kids are brilliant when it comes to technology. If I can’t figure something out, they can usually figure it out for me. I often just act as the guide and plant the seed or idea, and then help them problem solve and figure out ways to make it work. I’ve learned to let go of the reins quite a bit. You want kids to be self-sufficient and self-directed learners. You want them to take an interest in things and find ways to run with it. I think that being outdoors and using technology is a great way for kids to learn about problem solving.