Hands-on Activity: Where Is Your Teacher?

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A photograph of a compass on a lanyard.
Students use bearings to locate objects
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=compass&ex=1#ai:MP900302981|mt:2|


Students learn how to take bearings using orienteering compasses. They also learn how to describe a bearing and find an object in the classroom using a bearing.

Engineering Connection

Understanding bearing is essential to engineers who design radar tracking and surveillance systems used for everything from scientific study to military defense. Some radar systems measure distances and map geographical areas, others help to navigate at sea. Aircraft radar warns of obstacles, provides altitude readings and helps land planes in fog or by remote control. Radar is used for daily weather forecasting, and monitoring severe weather such as tornados and hurricanes. Radar systems are used to study the planets and the solar system, including tracking Earth-orbiting human-made satellites, space debris, meteors and other objects in outer space.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain the basics of how to use a compass, including taking a bearing and finding the direction of bearing,
  • Measure degrees,
  • Describe ways navigation technology is used in engineering,

More Curriculum Like This

Getting to the Point

Students learn how to determine location by triangulation. After the process of triangulation is described, students practice finding their locations on a worksheet, in the classroom and outdoors.

Middle School Lesson
Topo Map Mania!

Students learn to identify the common features of a map. Through the associated activities, students learn how to use a compass to find bearing to an object on a map and in the classroom.

Middle School Lesson
By Land, Sea or Air

Students learn that navigational techniques change when people travel to different places — land, sea, air and space. For example, an explorer traveling by land uses different navigation methods and tools than a sailor or an astronaut.

Middle School Lesson
GPS on the Move

During a scavenger hunt and an art project, students learn how to use a handheld GPS receiver for personal navigation.

Middle School Lesson

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Make formal geometric constructions with a variety of tools and methods (compass and straightedge, string, reflective devices, paper folding, dynamic geometric software, etc.). Copying a segment; copying an angle; bisecting a segment; bisecting an angle; constructing perpendicular lines, including the perpendicular bisector of a line segment; and constructing a line parallel to a given line through a point not on the line. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Direct and indirect measurement can be used to describe and make comparisons. (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Choose a level of accuracy appropriate to limitations on measurement when reporting quantities. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:


If you are unable to use landmark navigation (identifying known landmarks to determine your location) for getting around, how else could you navigate the wilderness or an unfamiliar city? (Listen to student ideas. Possible answers: Look at a map, use a compass, use a map and a compass together.)

Why are you not able to use landmark navigation in unknown areas like you do in your own familiar surroundings? (Possible answer: Because you do not know the relative location of landmarks if you have never been there before.)

What if you do not know how to use a compass, then what? Learning how to use a compass requires skills, but with a little practice, new users can get the hang of it and find directions using a compass. Today you will learn about the concepts of taking a bearing and using a compass to measure a bearing.


An Introduction to the Orienteering Compass

An orienteering compass is specifically made for wilderness travel. It is easy to use and has a number of features that are compatible with topographical maps. The orienteering compass has many special features (see Figure 1).

A photo of a compass with arrows pointing to the special features that make it compatible with topographical maps: compass needle, read bearing (N), rotating dial, orienteering lines and "red to  north red" arrow.
Figure 1. An orienteering compass.
Copyright © 2003 Matt Lippis, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

  • Red-to-North-Red Arrow: This arrow moves with the rotating dial to align with the compass needle. Notice the luminous lines around the top; these help to see in the dark.
  • Compass Needle: This needle points in the direction of the magnetic field. The red end points to magnetic north. Notice the luminous line in the middle; this helps to see the needle in the dark.
  • Read Bearing: After aligning the compass needle within the red-to-north-red arrow, the bearing is read here.
  • Rotating Dial: Rotating this dial allows you to align the red-to-north-red arrow with the compass needle. This dial has the direction on it.
  • Orienteering Lines: These lines are used with topographical maps. Topographical maps have grids on them so you can align the map and the compass.

Taking a Bearing Using a Compass

The most basic skill in using a compass is taking a bearing. This tells you what direction (or bearing) you are facing or what direction a place is, such as a mountain or a tree. This skill is essential to anything one might do with a compass. Luckily, it is very easy. Follow the steps below to take a bearing.

  1. Face some object, perhaps a mountain or a tree, to which you want to know the direction.
  2. Open up your compass (if it opens), and rest it against your belly or belt, facing straight ahead of you.
  3. Rotate the rotating dial until the red end of the compass needle lies between the red arrow facing north.
  4. Read the bearing from the compass. Looking at the compass, this should be the number on the dial that is facing the front of the compass. Usually the compass has a little tick mark or might even say "READ BEARING."

Following a Bearing Using a Compass

If you are walking someplace, such as back to your campsite, and camp is west 270 degrees, you need to know how to walk in that direction. This is called following a bearing.

  1. Rotate the rotating dial until the red end of the compass needle lies between the red-to-north-red arrow.
  2. Now, walk in the direction that you need to go (in our case, west), being sure to always keep the compass needle between the red-to-north-red arrow (that is, if you need to go west back to camp, look at the compass to see what direction west is, then just walk in that direction).
  3. It is often easy to start veering off from the direction you really want to head. An easy solution for this is to place the compass against your stomach or belt so that you can always look down and make sure you are heading in the right direction.

Before the Activity

With the Students

Ask the class: Who has used a compass before? For what purpose is a compass used? (Possible answers: To find an unknown location, to measure an object's location.) How does it work? (Answer: A compass works by using the Earth's magnetic north pole and directional pulls to determine north, south, east and west directions.) Usually, we find locations using landmark navigation. Obviously, we all know where the playground is, but what if we did not know what we were looking for? Pretend that we are on a desert island looking for Navigation Nemo's lost treasure. Being the navigation nut that Navigation Nemo is, he did not create his treasure map using landmarks like other pirates do; he used a compass and wrote down the course using bearings. In this case, landmark navigation won't help us find the lost treasure, but we can use a compass. All we have to know is how to use it.

Part 1: Find the Teacher

  1. Divide the class into groups of two or more students each; the smaller the group, the better.
  2. Give each group a group worksheet and one (or more, if available) compass.
  3. Give students a few minutes to answer the first question. They should determine which direction the needle is pointing on their compass.
  4. Then give them 5 minutes to take a bearing. When they are done, ask them to verify what they have just done. (Answer: They took a bearing.) What is a bearing? (Answer: The direction of some object relative to them.)
  5. Next, give students 5 minutes to find the bearing of the teacher.
  6. Have students compare their answers with other groups. If any answers are different from other groups, ask them why. (Answer: Because the bearing of an object is dependent on the location from which they took the bearing!)

Part 2: Bearing Exchanges

  1. Give each student an individual worksheet and complete the exercise with the students.
  2. Tell students: Pick any object in the classroom and write down the first letter of that object on your worksheet.
  3. Direct them to take the bearing of the selected object and write it down on their worksheets.
  4. Once done, have them each pick a partner.
  5. Direct students to exchange worksheets and desks/seats with their partners.
  6. Now, with their partner's worksheet and sitting at their partner's desk, ask them to find the object their partner picked.
  7. When done, have them discuss with their partners whether or not they correctly determined each other's objects. If the correct objects were not identified, have students not reveal the correct objects, but have their partners try again.
  8. Ask students: Why did you have to sit in each other's seats? (Answer: Because the bearing of an object is dependent on the location from where the bearing was taken. Since their partners took the bearings at their seats, they had to use the same seats to get the correct bearings.)


Troubleshooting Tips

While students are using the compasses, it is easy to have the compass needle jump around a bit as they are moving. To help with this, suggest students take compass reading by placing the compass on a desk or other stationary object.

Also, students need to keep the compass in one position in order to walk in a straight line. To help with this, suggest they hold the compass against their stomachs or belts, perpendicular to their bodies and facing straight ahead, in order to keep their headings steady.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • Who has used a compass before? What is a compass for? (Possible answers: To find an unknown location, to measure an object's location.)
  • How does it work? (Answer: A compass works by using the Earth's magnetic north pole and directional pulls to determine north, south, east and west directions.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheets: Have students follow along with the activity using the Individual Worksheets.

Post-Activity Assessment

Formation: To actively engage all students and assess their depth of understanding, have 8-10 students at a time form a human compass. Direct the group of students to line up in the front of the classroom. Then have the rest of the class shout out directions for the "compass" to point. After doing this with a few groups of different students, lead a class discussion asking students to share their observations on why or why not it was easy to determine directions.

Activity Extensions

Have a student pair create a treasure hunt by listing compass readings and distances from a starting point. For example: Starting at desk, walk 3 steps to the west. Next go south 4 steps. Then have another student pair try to follow those directions to find a secret treasure.

Using the same Individual Worksheet, have students broaden their object selections by going outside or to another room with new, unfamiliar objects. Have students compare and discuss the activity and why is easier or more difficult.

Activity Scaling

For sixth-grade students, have two students, instead of one, determine an object and its bearing for Part 2 of the Procedure > With the Students section. Then have them switch with another group of two students.


Matt Lippis; Penny Axelrad; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Satellite Division of the Institute of Navigation (www.ion.org) and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 10, 2017