Play, teach, learn - in the sandbox. Video game technology teaches students about watersheds

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Marie Pengilly demonstrates how the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene’s Augmented Reality Sandbox works.

Marie Pengilly can make it rain 40 days and 40 nights or cause a 100-year drought. She can conjure up a blizzard or make a volcano erupt — just using her hands.

Her godlike powers come from a new technology called the Augmented Reality Sandbox, a powerful teaching tool for local students studying environmental science.

“We’re planning on taking this into the schools for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Pengilly, the Outreach Coordinator for the Community Water Resource Center at University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene. “The teachers have been begging us for environmental science resources, and here is a learning tool that addresses kinesthetic and visual learners in a new way. When not out in the school districts, it can be found and accessed at UI Coeur d’Alene where the public can interact with it as well.”

Thanks to a popular video game component, students will be able to create their own worlds —  complete with mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys  - by moving sand around with their hands. Then they can watch what happens when they change the landscape or infuse the world with water, snow or lava  — instantaneously.

“Students will be able to learn how water drains from mountains into lakes, and how surface water interacts with groundwater,” said Pengilly. “This has amazing potential for teaching watershed sciences.”

The Augmented Reality Sandbox project was developed by researchers at the University of California Davis, who shared it with the world as an open source effort.

Today, the technology is being used all around the world, said Timothy Morgan, the University of Idaho Computer Science Coeur d’Alene IT Manager.

“Because it’s an open source project, computer scientists are continually updating and adding new features,” said Morgan, who helped build the University of Idaho’s sandbox. “I love that this will enable teachers. It’s an international effort.”

The University of Idaho’s sandbox uses the same Operating System and program specifications as the UC Davis ARSandbox, using an Xbox Kinect 3D camera, a projector, a powerful desktop computer, and sophisticated, specially programmed open source software. The sandbox holds 200 pounds of sand and is built to be portable.

Here’s how it works:

The Kinect sensor continuously scans the height of the sand surface at 30 frames per second, which is processed by the computer and projected back onto the sand as a colorful, ever-changing topographic map.

You can make it rain with a model cloud (cotton balls attached to a small stick) or your hand. Simply hold the cloud over the sand and watch computer-generated rain come down. Students will be able to watch watersheds flood and drain during torrential downpours.  

With the touch of a button, you can go into volcano mode and study lava flows.

The computer software allows the sandbox to be used as a topographical map, complete with contour lines. It’s a huge upgrade over traditional maps or models, Pengilly said.

“It’s fun to play with and the students will learn at the same time,” she said. “I can’t wait to get in front of students.”

Timothy Morgan and Marie Pengilly

 

Timothy Morgan and Marie Pengilly

 

Detail shot of the sandbox.

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