Using Technology to Learn from
Travelmates’ Adventures

Joseph A. Braun, Jr. Christine Kraft

Technology can play a supportive role in the achievement of elementary social studies learning objectives. This article describes several ways technology was used to support a popular teaching idea and to create a richer and more meaningful learning experience.
“Travelmates,” a thematic curriculum unit that originated at Price Laboratory School at the University of Northern Iowa in the fall of 1991 (McCarty, 1983), centers on teaching children geography and allows them to “travel around the world without ever leaving schoo#148; (p. 32). Essentially, the project consists of students who each bring a stuffed animal to class and prepare it for a journey. A journal records the anima#146;s ongoing adventures with a companion who is taking a trip out of town. It is this person’s responsibility to find another cooperating adult, traveling to a different location, who is willing to take the travelmate and continue passing it along. Information about the individual facilitating each travelmate’s (stuffed anima#146;s) journey and their actual travels are recorded in the journal. On a pre-selected date, the last individual in possession of the travelmate is requested to send it back to the school where it is returned to the child.
As originally designed, students in a third grade class at Metcalf Laboratory School selected a stuffed animal, prepared a journal, and made a backpack within which the journal and animal could travel from place to place. Directions clarified procedures that were used to facilitate the travelmates’ journeys. (See Figure 1.)

The first journal entry written by the students served as a model for the entries that followed (see Figure 2). The point of the project was to acquire geographic information and motivate the students to learn about the communities visited by the travelmates.

Launching and Tracking the Travelmates with Technology

Each travelmate’s journey began in the following way. When the initial journal entry was completed a bon voyage party was planned. Students were responsible for decorating and organizing party activities and identifying a travel companion for the first leg of the journey. In most cases, this individual was a family member who had out-of-town travel plans. Their responsibility was to make a journey entry, send a postcard back to the class, and pass the travelmate on to another responsible person who would be traveling to a different destination.

As postcards began to arrive, each student created a database and recorded information about their travelmate’s evolving itinerary. The information entered into the database was divided into the following categories: travelmate’s name; city and state (or country); mode of transportation
to the current location; and its population, average winter temperature, and estimated distance from Metcalf School.

Instruction in using an Appleworks data-base was given by the teacher and began with a small group who were familiar with computers. These students then became peer tutors for the rest of the class. Eventually all students became familiar with how to load the program, access the database file, record relevant information in each category, and then save files upon completing their entries. The importance of saving information often and making a backup of the file was stressed.
Students gained research skills in the construction of the database. They used an atlas to determine distance, initially estimating the distance traveled, and then using a ruler and calculators to refine their estimate. Population and temperature information was obtained from electronic encyclopedias. Transportation information was taken from postcards or journals. This gave the students experience in analyzing and collecting data from primary sources.

Postcards were pinned to a bulletin board around a world map. String attached each post-card to its location on the map. Postcards were easily accessed by the students for reading and sharing. Individually, students also kept track of the travelmate’s destinations by plotting them on their own copy of a world map. Approximately 300 were received. These were placed in baskets where students could continue to read about the adventures of all of the travelmates, and the postcard picture stimulated a great deal of interest and discussion about people and places all over the world.

Gaining New Perspectives With Technology

The supportive role played by technology made this travelmate project unique. The project used technology ranging from databases and electronic encyclopedias to video productions, requiring only equipment commonly found in elementary schools. The use of computer technology to organize and communicate large amounts of information efficiently and effectively was illustrated as basketsful of postcard information were translated into well-organized databases.
Postcard photographs were categorized by students into: natural resources, people, maps, entertainment, transportation, art, and architecture. An additional category for stamps was suggested by some students. These categories served as focus topics for special projects. Students selected topics of interest. Then, topic groups met to determine the direction of their study and the method of presenting their research to the class. Students used the library and gathered additional information from books and the electronic encyclopedia.

The map group illustrates the use of technology well. They directed and videotaped a children’s version of Good Morning America as their project. This group constructed a set, solicited potential guests (from other groups) to be interviewed, and developed interview questions based on the location of the travelmate’s visits. At airtime the students in this group took turns serving as the interviewer, the director, and the camera operator. In taping the show, students learned about proper lighting, dealing with distractions off the set during taping, the importance of body language and eye contact, and the skill of eliciting further interview information. The map group also used an overhead projector to present their findings. As a world map transparency was displayed, the plotted locations of travelmate destinations were identified to the class, emphasizing the continents visited and oceans crossed. Members of the map group also served as peer tutors for the database project.
To conclude the travelmate unit, a computer lab demonstration provided instruction in the advantages of using a computer to store and retrieve data (McCoy, 1990). An overhead projecting device was used to show students how to sort, locate, and analyze combinations of data. Students asked questions and then practiced finding information on their own. They inquired about the farthest distance traveled, the most frequently visited location, and the city with the highest population in the state of Illinois. This latter inquiry demonstrates the power of the computer to combine two variables simultaneously. The students quickly understood the difficulty of doing this by a hand sorting of the postcards.

Interdisciplinary Learnings

Curricular areas in this unit (in addition to social studies) include language arts, math, fine arts, and science. In language arts, the children engaged in a variety of reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities. Students wrote poems that were set to music, and they wrote creative pieces imagining the adventures of their travelmates. In mathematics, the children solved problems involving estimation, probability, and measurement. In fine arts, students learned about making masks, appreciating music from other countries, designing clothes, and creating skits. A highlight in science involved hands-on experiments based on the Los Angeles earthquake, a natural disaster that two travelmates survived. Similarly, a lesson on volcanoes was prepared upon receiving postcards from Mt. St. Helens and Hawaii. Cultural diets and nutrition were also examined, and students even prepared an Indonesian meal for the class as part of a group research presentation.
Significant knowledge, skills, and values were acquired. Students:
• learned map skills and could identify the continents and oceans;
• gained information about specific places and events;
• became more familiar with cross-cultural similarities and differences and human-environmental interactions;
• acquired research skills and understanding about framing questions for inquiry;
• and perhaps most important, learned the value and power of
collaboration and cooperation, not only within the classroom community, but also from those who took the time to affirm the children’s experience by keeping the travelmates circulating.


Preparing students for life in our technological and diverse world requires that teachers embed technology in significant learning experiences. This article has described how technology can support an existing curriculum unit and how such applications serve as powerful tools for heightening students’ motivation to learn while deepening their understanding about the world, and their connection to a global community.

McCarty, D. (1993). Travelmates: Geography for kids (and stuffed pets). Teaching K-8, 23(7), 32-35.
McCoy, J. (1990). Databases in the social studies: Not why but how. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 3(2), 13-15.
About the Authors
Joseph A. Braun, Jr. is Professor of Elementary Social Studies in
the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Illinois State University, Normal, IL.

Christine Kraft is Faculty Associate at Illinois State University’s Metcalf Laboratory School.

Figure 1. Travelmate Directions

1. Pass travelmates person to person.
Please only pass the travelmate to someone who is responsible and willing to follow these directions.

2. Make an entry in the travelmate’s journal.
Please include the date, location, and interesting information about the geography, population, and culture as well as personal comments regarding the travelmate’s stop.

3. Send a postcard back to Metcalf School to let us know how the travelmate is doing and where it has been. You may also include souvenirs in the bag. Please label them.

4. Be sure the travelmate returns to Metcalf School by April 1, 1994. You may send it C.O.D. if you wish.