Curricular Unit: Plot Your Course - Navigation

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

Two photos: A woman at sea looks into the lens of a black, metal hand-held device. Two different types of GPS receivers, hand-held devices with many buttons and small display screens.
Navigational equipment includes sextants and GPS devices.
Copyright © NOAA, U.S. Dept. of Commerce and U.S. EPA


In this unit, students learn the very basics of navigation, including the different kinds of navigation and their purposes. The concepts of relative and absolute location, latitude, longitude and cardinal directions are explored, as well as the use and principles of maps and a compass. Students discover the history of navigation and learn the importance of math and how it ties into navigational techniques. Understanding how trilateration can determine one's location leads to a lesson on the global positioning system and how to use a GPS receiver. The unit concludes with an overview of orbits and spacecraft trajectories from Earth to other planets.

Engineering Connection

Many types of engineering are important to the development of navigational equipment used for travel on sea, in space and on land. Understanding the science of natural phenomena enables engineers to design and create structures and systems for a variety of navigational purposes. Mathematics is also essential to the development of navigational equipment. Satellites designed and tested by engineers use equations that take into account the relative effects of space and time.

Engineering is built upon a network of knowledge extending back in time. Even though celestial navigation is for the most part historical, the best engineers understand how things used to be done, building on the same mathematics concepts—such as geometry and trigonometry—used by engineers every day. Engineers make predictions and analyze circumstances related to motion; they must understand the relationships between speed, time and distance. They use many techniques that often involve computers to help process the many calculations required to make good estimations.

Engineers design systems that require precise and known locations, and often use triangulation calculations. They use triangulation with ground data to determine where in space satellites are located. Accurately determining a satellite's location is important to adjusting its position to keep it on course. The global positioning system (GPS) uses the same concept of triangulation; the development of this now-ubiquitous system was made possible by the contributions from many engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers created satellite and other GPS equipment that performs reliably in the unique environment of space. Electrical engineers designed computers, circuit boards, power systems and wiring. Aerospace engineers determined satellite arrangement and orbit around the planet. Programming by software engineers enabled the satellites to operate on their own and transmit useful data to Earth receivers.

Engineering is vitally important to the creation of technology used in space, on water and on land. Without engineers, our ability to navigate our world and beyond would be much more difficult. The possibilities for future developments are only limited by our imaginations.

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 (

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.

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Unit Schedule


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© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

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


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Satellite Division of the Institute of Navigation ( 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..