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NDSU students learn with augmented-reality technology

Published February 2018

NDSU geology students learn topography using a hands-on, interactive method. They use a high-tech, augmented reality sand table to better visualize what the markings on a standard paper map mean in the real world.   

The sand table is made of unstained wood planks that are joined at each corner by thick metal brackets. Four metal poles stretch a few feet above the box, leading to a perch that holds a projector and camera.       

Sand comes to life when the projector is turned on. Bursts of vivid color replace sterile white. Deep blue represents water. Emerald green is vegetation. Dark red and light brown wrap around a sand hill mountain.    

“The first thing I do is release the students to the sand table and let them get their hands dirty,” said Jessie Rock, NDSU geology lecturer. “They make a hill, dig a hole, they watch the contours change, change some gradients and cut it with a trowel. They are smiling, engaging with their group, answering questions and learning so much without even really trying.” 

Hi-tech topography

NDSU is part of a growing number of universities and museums worldwide using augmented reality sand tables for hands-on learning.   

NDSU has five sand tables, four in geosciences and one in landscape architecture. The four geosciences sand tables allow more students to get hands-on instruction during each lab session.  

Rock said she’s noticed a tremendous difference in student’s results since adding the sand tables two years ago.

“The images from the table are going into their brains,” she said. “I know when they come off the sand table, they see the features when I put a map in front of them. They can tell me where streams are flowing and what the features are. That’s the whole goal.” 

Hands-on learning

Students love getting their hands dirty, building up mountains to white peaks, cutting into hills with a trowel to simulate erosion and digging out sand to make water features.  

The blue water shimmers and moves. Students use their fingers to cut away a high bank, sending simulated water flowing across the sand to the lowest points.    

A raised hand in the middle of the box creates a rain affect. Water pools, raises up and overruns the smooth sand.

“The differences between real life and what things look like on a topographic map are incredible,” said Genia Cegla, a senior earth science education major who also helps as a teaching assistant for Rock’s geology lab class. “A lot of students struggle to make three dimensional formations from something that’s two dimensional. The sand tables help you make connections you wouldn’t make otherwise. It helps you retain the information better, and it’s a lot more fun.”

Unique maps

Another important way the tables help students learn topography is the ability to create unique maps from their own sand creations. Students can build the features, then lay white poster board over the box. The overhead camera projects a two-dimensional topographic image onto the board that can be used to create a map.          

Students can make a side-by-side comparison to make instant connections.

“You can build anything and everything and you can see how the different landscapes change as you move,” Cegla said. “Maps come to life at the sand tables.”  

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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Vice President for University Relations
North Dakota State University
Phone: +1 (701) 231-1068 - Fax: (701) 231-1989
Campus address: Old Main 204
Mailing address: Dept 6000 PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050
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Last Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2018 9:53:55 AM
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