If you made it to your first day on the job without missing a turn, either you grew up here, or you can thank Gladys West. Even though the navigation technology is relatively new to everyday citizens (I specifically remember first placing a GPS monitor on my dashboard in 2008 in preparation for a trip to Washington D.C.), GPS technology has been under construction since the 1970s. Now I wonder what we ever did without it! Even after muscle memory has been committed to all the dips and turns on my 35-minute drive, I still set the map up on my phone every morning, maybe as an extra sense of security. (And how could I ever find the nearest Tim Horton’s without GPS?)
Gladys West was a hard-working, rural farm-girl from Virginia. She walked 3 miles each day to a one-room school, where she knew she had to learn as much as she could to get out of the blistering, back-breaking harvest work on her family’s small farm. She graduated top in her class, which earned her a scholarship to college.
After graduating from Virginia State College, West became a teacher. While teaching, she also earned a master’s degree in mathematics. The U.S. Navy recognized her talent in this field and hired her to do computer programming and coding. Although she earned her place in this prestigious program, at the time it was not common for a woman, especially a woman of color, to do such work. Amid a backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, West felt the need to work extra hard to prove herself and provide a path for those that would follow.
In the late 1970s, West became the project manager for Seasat, collecting and processing data from satellites to monitor the oceans. Her detailed mathematical calculations helped to depict an accurate model for the true shape of the Earth – a slightly squashed sphere with many crevices, high points, and vast ocean basins. This information was the groundwork needed to create GPS.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It is a system of satellites that provides location and time information anywhere on or near the surface of Earth where there is an unobstructed line of site to four or more GPS satellites. Mainly used in the military in the early 1990s, the benefits of civilian use were soon realized and full capabilities of GPS were made available to the public by the year 2000.
Today we use GPS without even thinking. We ask our phones to find the closest gas station, it is used in emergency and disaster communications, self-driving cars cannot function without GPS. More efficient crop management, geotagging (referencing location on photos we take with our phones), and recreation such as hiking or Pokémon Go! all rely on GPS.
In the spirit of having a little fun with GPS, try your hand at Geocaching. This inclusive pastime not only utilizes the tech we all have at our fingertips, but it gets us outside and interacting with our world.
Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunt using a GPS-enabled device (a smartphone will do!). Geocachers navigate to a specific set of coordinates and then attempt to find a cache (container) hidden at that location. Caches can be found all over the world and almost anywhere you can imagine. They vary greatly in size and appearance – everything from large, plastic tubs to tiny camouflaged film canisters. Inside a cache there is usually a logbook for you to record your name and date of discovery and a number of items, trinkets, or souvenirs (treasures!). The rule is that you can take an item from the cache if you like, as long as you leave something of equal or greater value in its place. When you are finished, put the cache back exactly where you found it.
All you need for geocaching is a smartphone and a sense of adventure!
To get started, take a minute to head to https://www.geocaching.com/play to make an account. This site also has extensive geocaching information, videos, and tutorials. Once you have an account, you can download the free geocache app to your phone. This app will give you basic access to all geocaches with a difficulty rating of 1.5 and below (on a scale of 1-5). This rating will be easy enough to get you started.
There’s a treasure out there waiting for you, thanks to Gladys West!
By: Kelli Grabowski, CA BOCES Learning Resources
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