Degree Confluence Project: At the Intersection of Geography and Technology

When Webmaster Alex Jarrett bought a global positioning system years ago, he didn't know that it would lead him on an online adventure! He set out on a trek to locate the point where a line of latitude and longitude met (called a confluence) and took pictures that he published on the Internet. This was the foundation of the Degree Confluence Project, an organized sampling of the world that is growing by leaps and bounds. With more than 11,000 confluences to be found, the project isn't about to run out of new goals for its participants. A confluence is within 49 miles of your classroom! Included: One teacher's experience plus tips for getting your class involved.

"In 1995, I bought a global positioning system [GPS]. It was not a common thing to have in those days, and after playing with it and exploring for a while, I decided it would be fun to visit an imaginary location such as 43 degrees N, 72 degrees W," says Alex Jarrett. "I set up a Web site that grew very slowly for about three years, and then more and more people found out about the site as word of it spread via e-mail and as it gained higher rankings in search engines."

Jarrett, a computer programmer who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, has always loved maps and exploring new places. He took photographs of his personal expedition to the confluence of 43 degrees north latitude and 72 degees west longitude and posted them on his Web site. Interest grew in finding other locations, and the Degree Confluence Project was born!

"My goal for the project is to visit each of the integer degree latitude and longitude intersections in the world, take pictures at each location, write a story about the journey, and post it to the Web site," Jarrett tells Education World. "I never had any idea my goals would be taken seriously; it was started as a fun game."

VIRTUAL WINDOW ON THE WORLD

The world has 64,442 latitude and longitude degree intersections, counting each pole as one intersection. Of these, 47,650 meet the goals of the Degree Confluence Project, and about 12,000 are actually on land. Currently, 703 people have visited or attempted a confluence. At any place on Earth, a confluence is no more than 49 miles away.

As it grew, Jarrett realized that his site could be useful as a sampling of the world. For example, if a Web tourist wants to know what New Mexico looks like, 17 of the 29 sample points are available on the Web site. The visitor can begin to develop an idea about the terrain of the area. Several spots have been visited more than once, so the site also shows how they have changed over time. Jarrett believes this could be useful as a way to track changes in the environment.

With so many to choose from, what are Jarrett's favorite confluences?

"I love the ones in Saudi Arabia and Terje Mathisen's visits to Norway, both because of their contrasting beauty and great picture quality," he explains. "I also love the great stories, such as 43 degrees N, 124 degrees W or where two people met at a confluence unintentionally at 40 degrees N, 124 degrees W. The ones I've visited [Jarrett, Alex] are special to me because I have such great memories of the journeys, even if they aren't very spectacular."

Jarrett explained that several educators have used the project as part of their curriculum. They have found it a useful way to teach the concepts of latitude, longitude, and navigation.

 Tips for Teachers Alex Jarrett of the Degree Confluence Project and teacher Linda Oliver offer some advice to educators about using the project with students: * Make sure students understand all the geographic concepts, preferably before starting the project. Searching for a confluence is a great way to learn about them. * Preview the site so that you know where to go, how long it will take, and that it is a safe location for children. * Consider inviting parents to help supervise your group. * Gadgets like a GPS can be fun to play with, but also do some of your navigation using a compass and maps. * Involve the people who live near the confluence. Always request permission to visit private property, but also speak to local residents as cultural geography. * Keep in mind that this does not have to be a whole-group activity. Small groups with video cameras may share their experience with the rest of the class through a video or slide show presentation. This is the perfect opportunity to use software such as PowerPoint. * If it is not possible to take your entire group, you may make the information available to parents so that the adventurous ones might tackle it with their children. * Combining learning and fun is the best way to do it!
Linda Oliver, a third-grade SEARCH (gifted/enrichment) teacher at May Howard Elementary School in Savannah, Georgia, is one such educator. She works with 73 students per week. Some have been identified as gifted, and others are high achieving, highly motivated students who benefit from her enrichment activities. Oliver learned about the Degree Confluence Project through a posting on the Web.

"The closest confluence to our area is only a couple of miles from my school and the neighborhood where I live. However, it is also in the middle of the Wilmington River, so it is not convenient to take a busload of children there!" explains Oliver.

With her handiest confluence taken, Oliver set out in a hurry to find other confluences in her area. With a friend and four elementary students in tow, she began her trip.

"I mapped out the closest confluences and decided to hit four of them," recalls Oliver. "I had a computer class on Saturday, so we left when I got out, spending the night in Waynesboro, Georgia, and planning to get them all on Sunday. That, of course, did not happen. Four was too many and took too long. We ended up with two.

"We gained what all students and teachers gain from investigating an interesting problem -- real life experience, some frustration, perseverance, the joy of finding out for ourselves, and a roaring good time together," adds Oliver.

Oliver explains that problem-solving activities such as this one can be time consuming and do take planning. The activities are not the best way to teach every curriculum objective. However, they are one of the best means of instruction because the student is so involved that the learning is memorable. In many ways, her trip could not have been more educational or memorable!

ULTIMATE TREASURE HUNT

"The children did more than learn about reading maps and a hand-held GPS, they also saw that knowledge is a treasure we seek," says Oliver. "It is so exhilarating and so important that we will literally pile in a van to go looking for something we want to find out about. And in the process, we will find out about more than our original goal because there is much to see and learn along the way.

"We were surprised that it took as long as it did to find places," Oliver reports. "We left Savannah, GPS in hand, thinking that with our up-to-the-minute technology, [locating the confluence] would be a simple matter. It was not. It just so happened that the cotton field confluence could be reached by a road, and we were able to drive within yards of it. However, we drove, and drove, and drove to find that little out-of-the-way dirt road, and there were absolutely no road signs that said, 'Confluence -- 2 miles.'

"We did a lot of wandering, asking for directions, and turning around," says Oliver. "We hit dead ends when property was fenced and roads were gated."

This project is not for the faint of heart, she adds.

For Oliver, the most rewarding part of the excursion was tromping through a kaolin (white clay) mine. The hilly terrain was very different from Savannah, and the explorers had the excitement of crossing ditches and pushing back brush as they trudged through the woods in search of their last confluence. There were splendid views, and they got to see the different colors of each strata of earth in the places where mining had stripped away huge sections of hills around them. According to Oliver, the hike was definitely the highlight of the trip!

And the fun hasn't stopped! Oliver hopes that the other two points in her original plan are still available in the summer when she has planned another excursion with a group of young adventurers.

BIG KIDS GET INTO THE ACT

Older adventurers are also getting a kick and a clue from the Degree Confluence Project. Ray Sumner, head of the department of social science at Long Beach City College in California, took a group of college students on a confluence-seeking expedition.

"I wanted the students to learn basic use of GPS, develop an appreciation of concepts of latitude and longitude, and look at landforms, vegetation, urban planning and development, and erosion processes," explains Sumner.

The students reacted with enthusiasm. They traveled to one confluence at 34 degrees N, 118 degrees W on a field trip and recorded their discoveries. The material was posted on the Degree Confluence Web site. Sumner recommends this activity to any teacher who sees curricular connections.

"This is a very innovative project and it captured my imagination as soon as I read about it," Sumner shared.