Science rocks in 3-D in Turlock High teacher’s class

Science rocks in Turlock High teacher's class

Geoscience teacher Ryan Hollister pioneers virtual field trips to geologic formations using cutting edge technology at Turlock High in Turlock, CA. His work was featured on National Public Radio show Science Friday in December. (Nan Austin/naustin
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Geoscience teacher Ryan Hollister pioneers virtual field trips to geologic formations using cutting edge technology at Turlock High in Turlock, CA. His work was featured on National Public Radio show Science Friday in December. (Nan Austin/naustin

“The Earth has stories to tell about its formation if you know how to read the rocks,” Ira Flatow leads off in the public radio “Science Friday” segment featuring Turlock High geoscience teacher Ryan Hollister.

Hollister’s nationwide radio debut came about from adapting a cutting-edge technology to take teens on a virtual field trip – an interactive, 360-degree experience in which students can move around and examine rocks from every angle.

His first “photosphere” took him about 250 hours, May through August, and $800 worth of photo equipment and software, Hollister estimated Wednesday.

The process stitches together more than 150 pictures taken from up, down and all around, creating three-dimensional photographic displays that students can virtually enter.

Kids are meant to explore the place, picking up even heavy boulders with the swipe of a fingertip. No risk of strains, sprains or sunburns. No terrain challenges for wheelchair riders. No quests for bathrooms for 100, or lunch facilities. Perhaps best of all for universal usefulness, no travel costs.

The first curriculum unit Hollister developed covers the Columns of the Giants in the Sierra Nevada, available at

“Each step guides students. It allows them to be curious and look and make observations. But it gives them pointers, as if I were pointing over their shoulder,” Hollister said.

The method follows the collaborative, project-based blueprint of Next Generation Science Standards adopted by California.

“It allows them to explore and experience it rather than, ‘Here is the answer,’ ” he said.

The approach is reflected in his standard geoscience lessons, which focused on the incoming storm Wednesday. Flipping between websites on a blackboard-sized screen, Hollister quizzed students on what they saw through webcams in Yosemite, rainfall measurements over time, a globe of wind-flow patterns and an international Twitter feed for weather watchers.

Were the several inches of rain expected a lot? Coming from Hawaii, would it be warm or cold? What would that temperature shift mean for the snowpack at lower elevations?

Between queries he explained about flooding, the drought, dam storage and weather patterns. All about Turlock. All about what was happening in their still-small world.

But while he kept the focus narrow, the information spanned a wide range. Walls full of photos, maps and geology posters surround his classes, and on the back counter, a student project of plastic cups and straws shows a bent for hands-on lessons.

“We’re building projects, like windmills, and we end up competing with each other,” said student Randel Montenegro.

Hollister finished the first photosphere unit in December and will introduce it to his classes at Turlock High this coming semester. At Pitman High across town, geoscience classes taught by his wife and collaborator, Laura Hollister, will also get to see it.

The same technology already is being used, though with lower resolution, in universities, Hollister said. His is believed to be the first application for high school or junior high students.

“It’s groundbreaking,” he said, then stopped himself. “That sounds like I’m so full of myself, but there’s not much out there that’s anything like this.”

“This is an amazing project. I was just blown away by this,” Flatow said in interviewing Hollister. The segment made the Best of 2016 list for Science Friday, heard by 1.7 million listeners each week, and carried by 374 public radio stations – including Capital Public Radio at KUOP, 91.3 in the Modesto area.

The Turlock teacher’s eight-minute segment aired Dec. 16. The live broadcast was pre-empted by President Barack Obama’s news conference, Hollister said, but the podcast has garnered notice.

Hollister was one of six science teachers chosen for the first Science Friday Educator Collaborative in February. Teachers interested in joining the 2017 cohort must apply by Jan. 8.

Being selected for the collaborative spurred development of what had been just “wouldn’t it be great if …” musings into action, Hollister said. The journey from idea to finished project took a steep learning curve, he added.

Though publishers have contacted him, Hollister said his next challenge will be to develop more virtual field trips to teach more geo-science topics, and find a way to distribute the novel resource for free.

“I really want everything to remain free and open-source. I want this to remain open to everyone,” he said.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin