Stanford University
Wilder Ranch State Park

A new take on the field trip? There's an app for that

A new teaching tool created by a Stanford faculty member hosts student-generated virtual journeys that enrich visits to actual locations and allow other students to take field trips from home  

BY Simon Firth
ClockMay 25, 2018

When freshman Pam Poteh checked her phone repeatedly on a geology field trip to the Stanford Dish last autumn, she wasn’t getting distracted. Instead, she was following a requirement for GS 42, Landscapes and Tectonics of the San Francisco Bay Area

Poteh was logged into a specific, publicly-available “journey” within a new, location-based mobile app called shoMe developed by her professor, George Hilley . “I wanted to add flexibility and scale to traditional field education and at the same time offer Stanford undergraduates the opportunity to hone their skills as science communicators,” says Hilley, an associate professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). 

George Hilley
George Hilley, associate professor of geological sciences.

Poteh was paying especially careful attention because her final class project would ask her to contribute additional material to the shoMe journey she was viewing. Titled “A Drive Through Earthquake Country,” it had been developed by Hilley and former students over the last three iterations of GS 42 to explain how active faulting and erosion in the Bay Area determine its unique valley, mountain, and coastal landscapes. 

On subsequent class trips to Wilder State Beach, Fort Funston and the Golden Gate Bridge, among other locations, Poteh would gather the data, images, and sounds she’d need to add her own layers of explanatory material to the mobile experience. 

“Having to explain it in a story format really enhanced my own understanding of the material we were learning,” Poteh notes. “It’s one thing to understand something yourself but it’s another thing to have to explain it to other people.”

“Just having the opportunity to take the class made my freshman quarter so much more interesting and exciting,” she adds. “This is completely different from any other class I’ve had here and, talking with my friends, they haven’t had a project like this with an immediate, real impact in the world.” 

Junior Hannah Shor co-created the story elements Poteh was viewing on the Stanford Dish trail while enrolled in GS 42 as a freshman herself.  Working with shoMe, she notes, has been “my first and so far only experience of technology being integrated into a geology or environmental course.” 

“Both my parents are geologists and they were so excited that it wasn’t just “sit and go around memorizing rocks,” Shor adds. The experience helped convince Shor to follow in the family tradition and declare as an Earth Systems major.

Hilley began thinking about shoMe five years ago as a way to broaden the reach of location-based education. “The idea was to try to take how we interact with students in the field and keep them all on the same page at the same time and export that to some scalable technology,” he recalls.

That inspired him to design and build a prototype app-based platform that could host multiple “journeys,” or tours of any size – from a walk through a building to a transcontinental expedition – anywhere on the planet.  

With technical and financial support from Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL), the idea became shoMe, an educational tool that offers a new way to experience learning in the field and also to “travel” through real locations even when students don’t have the resources to leave the classroom.

Unlike other mobile “tour” apps, shoMe can remember what each user has already learned and then adjust the information they receive at specific locations to their level of understanding. It can also add quizzes to test users’ knowledge as they go and solicit anonymous feedback at each location, helping tour designers improve their offerings. 

In addition to the app, Hilley created a web-based content creation engine via which his students now make their contributions. This year he added a simulator that allows anyone to go on the shoMe website and have a virtualized experience of following the student-generated journey without needing to travel.


Hilley and his students have been exploring the potential of both elements in another undergraduate class offering, Our National Parks. An exercise in science communications, the class invites students to create journeys through a US national park of their choice that offer location-based insights into the geography, history, and culture of the park to both real and virtual visitors.

Stanford Earth senior Nick Mascarello and two classmates chose to develop a journey around Yosemite National Park when they took the class. Mascarello appreciated being able to develop communication skills he hadn’t been exposed to before – and the incentive of knowing that it would be made public. 

In other classes, he says, “you write a paper, get a grade, and you put it in your desk and never look at it again.” In contrast, his team’s shoMe guide was “something that can be used over and over to help people discover something new and learn something.” 

Feedback like that has inspired several Stanford faculty beyond Stanford Earth to try the pedagogic tool.

Petra Dierkes-Thrun, VPTL assistant vice provost and lecturer in Comparative Literature, used it to create a walking tour of LGBTQ+ history in San Francisco for her 2017 Introduction to Queer Literary Studies. Colleague Katherine Preston, associate director of the Stanford Human Biology program, now tasks students in The Human-Plant Connection class with making multimedia contributions to a shoMe journey around the Stanford campus that locates edible plants and then explains their physiology and the history of how people have shaped their evolution. 

“The great thing with all naturalists’ work is that it's all situated,” observes Dr. Carlos Seligo, academic technology specialist for the Program in Human Biology and a key collaborator for Hilley in expanding shoMe’s reach beyond Stanford Earth. “There is really no way to be a botanist or geologist from an armchair.”

Hilley hopes that as more faculty use the tool, they will also exploit its built-in capacity to share story elements between “journeys,” creating hybrid experiences via which students can visit a location and explore whichever scientific, historical, or cultural aspects of the place intrigue them. He’s also hopes to expose more students than the two dozen that he can typically accommodate on field trips to the benefits of location-based learning through the shoMe simulator.  

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, (650) 497-0947

2019 Webby Award Nominee

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