Nan Austin

On Campus: To infinity and beyond

As the massive Rim fire turns forest to ash, families stand ready to flee mountain homes and strike teams stand ready to block its path.

But step back from the flames and the fears, and the picture turns to devastation and aftermath. The smoke effects air quality; the ash washes into water flows; bared hillsides could slide — a real life science lesson with drama, danger and consequences.

“The Rim fire is such a devastating event, but so powerful,” said geoscience teacher Laura Hollister of Pitman High.

She and husband Ryan, a geoscience teacher at Turlock High, tap current events and their own travels to make textbook learning come alive.

“We’ve basically taken our adventures and made them into our own course,” said Ryan Hollister. The key to engaging teens, he said, is to keep it local and relevant.

“It has to be authentic. You can’t go in and teach it from a textbook. You’ve got to know it. You’ve got to love it,” Laura said.

Wildfires provide a lesson. A seaside community slowly sliding toward the ocean provides another, both raising questions of where people should live and who should pay for their choices.

“There aren’t answers to these (questions). We believe it’s just so important to understand the earth,” Laura Hollister said.

Water and weather also fall in their field. “I don’t need to tell you what to feel about climate change. I do need to teach you the science,” she said.

<MC>The couple, who met on a geology trip and laugh at their own nerdiness, call their field a “gateway science,” because it hooks kids in teaching scientific skills while talking about space travel, earthquakes, hurricanes and other real life events and issues.

“You can touch it and see it and experience it,” Laura said. 

“It’s an every-man science,” Ryan said. He calls geoscience “life skills for being a successful human being.”

Both see huge potential for their students in a science so new and fast-developing, they literally could reach the stars.

<MC>No wonder NASA tagged them to be two of 17 teachers, the only Californians, for a five-day course at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in August.

They met team members from the U.S. Mars missions, walked in the “Mars yard” where pilots practice guiding robot space travelers, posed with Mars meteorites and stood in mission control as it worked.

Even more exciting was what they brought back: Teaching packets loaded with material for their classes, website information with resources for the asking and a research project on Mars rock samples their students will get to take part in.

Measuring, dating, map scaling, classifying and learning about planets can all be done using Mars materials. All the sciences tie in, but so does a lot of math, history, English composition and other subjects, Laura added. “We can use Mars as a teaching conduit,” she said, “I went all the way back to What is life? There’s not really a right answer. Is a virus alive?”

These are all conversations for classrooms to bring teens into a discussion that matters while learning the skills, vocabulary and concepts they need to master.

The lesson plans pull straight from common core science standards. “They’re graded with a rubric, based on what they’re reasoning, what they’re thinking — based on real science,” Ryan said.

“This is what science is — prove it!” Laura said.

Lots of Links:

The Hollisters’ trips and teaching resources

Mars Mission

Be a Martian education site 

NASA Mars mission career bios

Mars science lab videos 

Imagine Mars videos

Arizona State University Mars lesson plans

Mars Bound: Mission to the Red Planet