Northwest Early College High School (NWECHS) is the only academic institution in the region to house its very own interactive topographic sandbox as a result of an interdisciplinary collaboration.
There are many augmented reality sandboxes across the globe at science museums, universities, and other locations, however, NWECHS is the only local school to house its own student-adapted model.
The augmented reality sandbox provides students and educators with a new approach to advanced hands-on learning about geoscience processes such as mapping, topography, watersheds, and natural hazards, to name a few. Through the use of computer programming, projection, and motion-sensing, students and teachers are able to form peaks, valleys, and bodies of water by manipulating the sand causing contour lines and colors to project in the sandbox depicting the corresponding topography.
The sandbox came to be through an interdisciplinary collaboration between geology and computer science (CS) at NWECHS. Catherine Tabor, a CS teacher at NWECHS, acquired grant funding to be able to make the sandbox a reality as well as provide her computer science students the unique opportunity to directly adapt the coding and hardware to create the sandbox.
“The goal of computer science is to make everyone else’s life easier,” Tabor said. “Being able to show the kids these applications and let them see that they’re actually capable of doing this and have the applications run and be of service to other disciplines is extremely important for their growth in computer science.”
The sandbox was funded by a grant from the University of Texas at Austin’s WeTeach_CS program that aims to empower and inspire K-12 CS teachers, administrators, professional development providers, and university instructors to realize the vision of computer science for all. Tabor also applied for a mini-grant to fund the electronics while the software was downloaded from the University of California, Davis website and adapted to the NWECHS sandbox set up by a group of CS3 students led by senior Nathan Jonah Novelo.
“Part of the fun was learning this whole new coding language that we needed to create the sandbox,” Novelo said. “After overcoming a lot of challenges and issues, getting it to work was very rewarding, and seeing it completed was a really good feeling.”
For Camila Zeh, geology teacher at NWECHS, the chance for students to go beyond the confines of traditional paper maps and get to explore and interact with the sandbox is a major benefit of having it as a tool right on campus at students’ disposal.
“If I give them a paper map and tell them to create the landform that represents the map they can go over to the sandbox and play with the sand and put it in an orientation that matches what is on their paper. They are able to see what the landform is like with the sand,” Zeh said. “Students can take something that isn’t as tangible and make it into something they can see with their eyes. Sometimes there is a disconnect on what you see on paper but if they can create it they can visually see what it looks like in real life.”