Exploring Geologic History With a Virtual Field Trip

8:38 minutes


The earth has stories to tell about its formation, if you know how to read the rocks. But sometimes getting to a place to observe that geologic evidence is tough. Ryan Hollister, a high school geosciences teacher in Turlock, California and a member of this year’s Science Friday Educator Collaborative, has built a virtual field trip involving interactive 360-degree photospheres, coupled with 3-D modeling of individual rocks, that allows viewers to explore the landscape of the Columns of the Giants in the Sierra Nevada.

Segment Guests

Ryan Hollister

Ryan J. Hollister is a veteran geoscience and AP environmental science teacher at Turlock High School in Turlock, California. Through a signature blend of enthusiasm and expertise, he fosters an appreciation in his students for the physical processes that have shaped the region they call home: California’s Great Central Valley. Ryan’s ultimate goal is to help shape a citizenry that will solve the air and water quality problems that plague the San Joaquin Valley.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The Earth has stories to tell about its formation if you know how to read the rocks. But sometimes it can be hard for the average person to get to a good place to see the geologic evidence. But now there is help.

Ryan Hollister, a high school geoscience science teacher in Turlock, California and an educator in this year’s Science Friday educator collaborative, has built a virtual field trip. This is an interactive 360-degree experience complete with 3D graphics of individual rocks. You can literally pick up a rock and spin it around and see all the sides. In the landscape chosen for our virtual field trip is a site called the Columns of the Giants in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s up on our website at sciencefriday.com/photosphere. Go try it out.

And Ryan is here to talk about it with me now. He joins us via Skype. Welcome.

RYAN HOLLISTER: Hi. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: This is an amazing project. I was just blown away by this. Tell our listeners. Walk us through how you made this resource.

RYAN HOLLISTER: All right. Well, it was pretty easy. The first step was having to go out and take about 150 pictures of rocks that I wanted to include in this virtual photosphere which is up in the Sierra Nevadas. And then I had to come home and spend hours and hours and hours trying to learn how to stitch photos together and make these three-dimensional photospheres. And then try to figure out what was the best way I could possibly engage students once these photospheres were made. Some of the photospheres– I guess you can kind of think of it like a Google Street View on steroids with just super-duper high resolution, so you can zoom in and zoom out and allow students to see things.

So my question really was how can I get my students engaged to find and solve some of the geologic mysteries of how this landscape formed. But it involved about seven miles of hiking and bushwhacking and getting up to the top and setting up my tripod. And a lot of patience back home in the post-production stage.

IRA FLATOW: I can imagine, because one of my favorite parts of the tour is that there are rocks lying around that you can pick up virtually and spin them around. There are 3-D models of individual rocks and elements. How hard was it to make that?

RYAN HOLLISTER: Pretty tricky. There’s a few folks– Callan Bentley who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College– she kind of pioneered it, she’s the one I saw it from. But you basically have to take about 150 images of each individual rock. It’s an actual rock that came from the field. And I put it on turntables and had to practice with the lighting.

And once all those pictures are made and you get every single angle that you possibly can of that rock, then it takes about two hours or two days of photo stitching in the software to make it come together and apply the texture and stuff. It was interesting. It wasn’t hard, just time-consuming.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this site that you chose. Why this site in particular, and what will it help students learn there?

RYAN HOLLISTER: So this site has actually got some really amazing places. It’s up in Sonora Pass in the Sierra Nevadas. And most people know the Sierras as these big, huge, amazing granite, granitic mountains.

And there just happens to be a spot where this basaltic lava flow kind of filled up a granitic valley. So the big question is how did this basaltic flow get there? And then it makes these really amazing weird shapes. These gigantic hexagonal columns that are maybe 200, 300 feet high and break off in these gigantic hexagonal chunks. How did it get there and why are they there?

And then as the students hike up to the top of the Columns of the Giants, there’s these funny, big, granitic boulders sitting on top of these basalt lava flows that are very out of place. And so they’re going to try to solve those mysteries of how that happened.

But it’s just really unique. There’s just not many volcanic features like that there. And the main goal was to try to relate this to a story in Iceland that was on Science Friday a few years ago. And at the end of this whole trip, once people are able to decipher the story of what happened here, they will be able to apply their knowledge to try to figure out how places in Iceland were formed and even on Mars, which is pretty slick.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re basically giving us a tour of an old volcano site.

RYAN HOLLISTER: Yeah, there’s definitely a lava flow on the top. It’s still kind of up for debate of where it came from. There’s some sites around there and I discuss it briefly, but better geologists than me will know for certain in a few years exactly where it came from.

IRA FLATOW: Did you know what you were going to do, or where we were going in this project, or did you learn along the way?

RYAN HOLLISTER: I had to learn along the way. When I applied for the educator collaborative, I kind of shot my mouth off and thought, well, wouldn’t it be great if we could incorporate some of the latest and greatest technology.

IRA FLATOW: That helps around here. We’re convinced by that kind of talk.

RYAN HOLLISTER: I had no idea really of what to do. And then they accepted me. So it was a very sharp learning curve over the summer to research and design and come up with the right off-the-shelf software that I could use to make it what I wanted. So it was a big learning process.

IRA FLATOW: Now, tell us what’s the best way to approach this. When you go onto the site, what should we do, and how should we take the tour?

RYAN HOLLISTER: Well, the first thing, you actually drop into, what I call a blank photosphere. So there’s six stops within this field trip. And basically you can jump into the first photosphere with kind of no prodding and just cruise around and zoom in and zoom out and find things that look interesting.

For students, we’re going to be having them make field sketches, so you get a little bit more observational details that they may have otherwise missed. And you can kind of cruise around that. And then after you pop out of the blank photosphere, there’s a bunch of information that’ll tell you how to tell apart different types of rocks like granite and basalt.

That’s a huge differentiation people need to know to tell a big story. And then there’s evidence for glaciation, how do we know glaciers were here, how might you know some other things like that. There’s also some lichenometry that I included where lichen falls on these talus piles, these broken piles of rock at the bottom. And scientists can actually infer the age of rockfalls based on how much lichen has grown on them, which is pretty slick.

So after they have all that information, then they can go into an annotated photosphere which, as a geology teacher, gives people the knowledge they would need to know to solve this without actually giving them the answers. They’ll have to consult some field guide books and things like that but it’ll help them piece together and hopefully at the end come up with a solution of how this landscape formed. So it doesn’t explicitly give them the answers it’s trying to be more of a discovery.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know I’m not a geology student. I’m not in school anymore. But I really loved taking this tour myself. Anybody can take this, it’s not just for students. And as you go along the way, you find different rocks and different things and pick them up, and you examine them. It’s like a video game.

RYAN HOLLISTER: It kind of is. And my students were finally able to see the live view today right before they took their final. So they were pretty excited about seeing it and getting to run through it next year.

And I think what separates mine from other photospheres that are out there is just the resolution is super high. And at AGU last week, I heard somebody mention that pixels are data. So to be able to have such high resolution and be able to have this extra data, it’s just really a lot nicer than zooming into a blur of pixilated images. Which I think it’s got a lot of potential, especially for disabled geology students that maybe will never have a chance to get out in the field to these places. I think it’ll allow them to experience it first-hand in a much higher quality way.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I hope to see more of this in other places, because you’ve created a terrific technique here.

RYAN HOLLISTER: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: And I can’t wait to go back and jump in. And anybody can jump in. The tour is on our website at sciencefriday.com/photosphere put together by Ryan Hollister, Turlock in California. A geosciences teacher at Turlock High School, California. Part of the Sci-Fri educator collaborative.

Ryan Hollister, happy holiday to you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

RYAN HOLLISTER: Thank you so much. You, too.

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