‘Bringing science to life’

Sometimes a sandbox is more than childhood entertainment – it also can be a fantastic learning tool.

At NDSU, the Augmented Reality Sandbox is an interactive way to learn about topography. The geosciences department has five sandboxes that can simulate a three-dimensional landscape by using colors and lines to give students a hands-on lesson in landscape topography, geomorphology and watersheds.

Located in NDSU’s new Sugihara Hall science building, the sandboxes include a computer projector and a motion-sensing input device, called a Kinect, mounted above a box of sand. Students shape the kinetic sand any way they want; in essence, creating their own individual land surface.

“Being able to play around with sand to manipulate simulated terrain and then see how fluids interact with the landscape are always fun,” said Emily Jackson, a junior geosciences major from Fargo who helps teach the topography map course. “To me, the sandbox is special in what it does for students. By engaging them with a hands-on experience, we're able to make a difficult topic fun and interesting.”

According to Jackson, there’s a "spark of understanding" shortly after students begin using the sandbox. “They run with it by creating a bunch of scenarios that broaden their knowledge without them even realizing it,” Jackson said. “By the end of the lab, students are capable of drawing their own topographic maps and explaining them to their peers.”

And that is exactly the result course instructor Jessie Rock, lecturer of geology, looks for.

“Hands-on learning enhances the undergraduate experience by bringing science to life,” Rock said. “Lab activities enable students to transform lectures into physical interactions that can help make scientific concepts more concrete and inspire life-long interest and enthusiasm for science.”

The bottom line is: students gain experiences close to what they'll practice on the job, they get a higher degree of understanding and they have a lot of fun as they learn.