Search form

Lessons of the Explorers

What kinds of people choose a life of exploration, adventure, and danger -- and where would we be without them? Your students will answer those questions as they investigate explorers and determine their impact on our world. Included: A dozen simple and successful classroom activities.

Which Europeans explored Trinidad? Newfoundland? the Cape of Good Hope? Texas? Those questions are probably easy enough for your students to answer -- or to find the answers to. But once they have the facts, can they answer the more difficult -- and important -- questions: Who were the explorers really? What drove them? What sustained them? What impact did they have on our lives?

They'll know the answers if their explorations have led them to Explorers of the World [archived copy], a Web site that emphasizes the use of knowledge instead of just the knowledge itself.

Developed and maintained by the Bellingham School District in Bellingham, Washington, Explorers of the World provides the biography links you'd expect to find at a site about explorers of land, ideas, sky, and art. It goes beyond the obvious, however, asking students to analyze not just the accomplishments of those individuals, but their character as well.

The site provides students with a list of "The 10 Characteristics of the Achieving Personality" -- focus, preparedness, conviction, perseverance, creativity, curiosity, resilience, risk taking, independence, and a sense of higher purpose. The site then asks students to decide which of the characteristics apply to the explorers they are studying (and which apply to their own lives).

Why not begin your study of the explorers by asking your students the same questions?

Explore the explorers. Have students visit Bellingham's Explorers Homeport [archived copy] and complete the research activity. Then ask them to answer the following questions:

  • What personal characteristics did the people who chose a life of exploration share?
  • Which of the explorers you studied do you most admire? Why?
  • Which do you least admire? Why?

Write a biography. Then encourage students to choose one explorer -- the one they most admire or the one they least admire -- and research both online and library resources for information about that person in order to write a biography of that adventurer.

He went that-a-way. As a follow-up to the previous activities, provide students with Paths of Exploration, a map of North America that shows the names, dates, and routes of French and British explorers of Canada. Then distribute outline maps of the United States, and have students identify the names, dates, and routes of the explorers they studied. If possible, display a large map on a classroom bulletin board, and have students copy all the information to the large map. Be sure to include a color-coded key.

Who's the best? Ask students to read the biographies they've written to their classmates. Then have the class vote for one candidate they think should be nominated to an Exolorers Hall of Fame. Display the results of the vote in a chart.

Look beyond the horizon. For centuries, the quadrant, a simple triangle-like tool used to measure angles and plot navigation by the horizon has allowed adventurers to measure and explore their world. Have students read Ptolemy's Ptools: The History of the Quadrant and then complete the Triangulating Project to project the distance across a creek.

Explore Mars. Someday, in the not so distant future, scientists hope to send people to Mars. At Mars Exploration, NASA scientists explain how they are preparing for the mission. Have students explore the site and other resources to learn more about the "red planet" and the problems visitors might face there. Make a list of the problems, and then brainstorm some solutions. Arrange students into groups, and ask each group to invent a tool or device that will help visitors survive on the planet. Students can simply sketch and describe their invention, or they can construct it out of collected "junk."

Explore the heavens. Invite students to Explore the Solar System, and then invite them to join you in the schoolyard to create The Thousand-Yard Model of the solar system. As a follow-up to the activity, send home the family activity Relative Size and Distance of Planets.

Whoops! Challenge students to plan an expedition of their own and write journal entries about the trip. Students will have to choose a starting and ending point for the exploration, determine the obstacles that might arise, decide on ways of overcoming those obstacles, and tell whether their voyage was successful.

Explore the Web. Students in grades 2 and 3 will enjoy learning about the Internet using the online exploration in the Little Explorers Picture Dictionary With Links. Encourage students to browse the dictionary by choosing a letter and following the links. Then have them complete one of Classroom Activities for Little Explorers -- or create one of your own.

What do you know? Encourage students to test what they've learned about the Explorers of North America and the areas they explored using Quia's flashcards, matching activity, word search, and concentration game. Test students' knowledge of more in-depth information about the early European explorers with the Quia Quiz!


Provide students and their families with the URL for Wonderworld

Home Activities

The Center for Science Education at the University of California's Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory provides directions for an activity families can do together to help students visualize the Relative Size and Distance of Planets. Simply print the activity directions, and send them home! Encourage students to take pictures of the completed toilet paper model of the solar system to share with their classmates.

In this National Geographic Family Xpedition, students and their families explore the wonders of the world and design a theme park where visitors can explore great ideas in architecture and engineering. Encourage families that are not online to use a computer at the local public library, or print and send home the activity's main page and list of potential attractions. Encourage families to explore the attractions and complete the activity together. Display the completed activities in your classroom, and invite families to visit and tour the attractions.


The following sites contain complete online lessons or activities related to exploration. You won't have to do a thing but make use of the resources provided for you!

Trailblazers -- Now and Then
In this WebQuest developed by Ralph W. Kline, a teacher at St. Joseph School in Mission San Jose, California, students explore the best land routes between various U.S. cities, then try to learn about the first explorers who traveled those trails.


Project: Make an Explorer's Book
In this online project from McGraw-Hill, students read online student essays about explorers, compare what they read with facts from other sources, write essays about explorers, and compile their essays into a book. The site includes a student project sheet that can be used to create a black line master.


Discoverers by Alphabet
This page, part of Discoverers Web, provides an alphabetical hotlist to biographies of early European explorers.

Explorers of the World [archived copy]
Bellingham (Washington) Public Schools provides a hotlist of biographies of early European explorers.

Australian Explorers
Roma Reilly, a teacher at Benowa State School in Queensland, Australia, provides biographies of Australian explorers for elementary students. Each biography is presented at two different levels of difficulty.


This hotlist of early European explorers was developed by the Educational Technology Training Center at Kennesaw (Georgia) State University.

Discovery and Exploration
The maps in this collection from the Library of Congress, which date from the late 15th century to the 19th century, document the European Age of Discovery and the later exploration of the interior parts of the continents.

A Solar System Scale Model Meta Page
This extensive list of links contains directions for constructing a scale model of the solar system. The site includes suggestions for activities for a unit on the solar system.

Welcome to the Planets
NASA provides photographs and information about the planets and the spacecraft that explore them.

The Explorers
This list of links to sites about explorers and exploration includes photographs, timelines, and biographies.

Mrs. Mitchell, a fifth-grade teacher at Kimball School in Concord, New Hampshire, developed this list of links to sites about explorers and exploration.

The Age of Exploration Student Activities
The Mariners' Museum provides a number of excellent exploration-related activities, including making a compass, learning about latitude and longitude, and creating a globe. The site includes a word search and a crossword puzzle.


Be sure to see more great lesson ideas in Education World's
Discoverer's Day archive.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © Education World


Last updated 10/04/2012