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Northwest Missouri State University

News Release

Jan. 27, 2017

Sandbox brings mapping concepts to life for geography students

Northwest Missouri State University Assistant Professor of Geography Dr. Brett Chloupek was looking last year for a better way to teach landform interpretation to his maps and map interpretation class when he stumbled onto a YouTube video depicting a piece of technology that at first appeared complex.

“I got to reading about it and realized it was doable, we can build this,” Chloupek said.

Through some collaboration and ingenuity with Michelle Allen, a lab technician in the Department of Natural Sciences, students are seeing geography concepts under a new light with the impressive augmented reality sandbox.

The tool at first appears like a typical sandbox. But the sand surface becomes a virtual playground for learning fundamentals of map interpretation when Chloupek turns on the computer, the three-dimensional Kinect camera and the projector suspended over the box.

The 3D camera maps the sand surface and measures elevational changes, feeding information to the computer. In return the projector displays contour lines onto the sand.

When students move the sand to form mountains, valleys and other landforms, the contour lines immediately shift to the new landscape.

“It looks complex, but the concept is actually really simple,” Chloupek said. “It’s something that students find a lot of interest in and something that’s usable beyond just geography.”

In addition to moving the sand to build a specific landscape, rain can be simulated by holding a hand over the surface, resulting in images of water flowing across the contour lines to lower elevations. Consequently, students learn how topography manages water.

Or the water feature may be changed to simulate volcanic eruptions and lava flow.

“By the time we get to the landform interpretation, it’s late in the trimester, the students are a little tired,” Chloupek said. “I can topographic map them to death, and this gets them up and out of the seats.”

It’s an addictive tool, and often students don’t realize they’re learning science concepts by running their fingers through the sand.

“(Associate Professor of Geology Dr. John Pope) said that for the first time he had students stay late after class,” Chloupek said.

Chloupek and Allen collaborated to secure funding from the departments of Natural Sciences and Social Sciences. They recycled some of their own resources, including computers, a server and a chemistry stand that they repurposed to construct a cart for the sandbox. The entire project cost less than $2,000 with the most expensive piece being a short throw projector to display imagery on the sand.

Pope provided the sand. Assistant Professor of Geology Dr. Arghya Goswami assisted by writing computing scripts that create more user-friendly buttons for the faculty and students who work with the sandbox.

Now the natural sciences department is considering other applications for the sandbox. It may provide additional opportunities for students studying ecology, earth science, and emergency and disaster management.

“For those people who come from other fields, this might be the first time they’ve ever had to look at topographic maps,” Chloupek said. “Some can do it, but something like this makes learning the concepts faster and more interesting.”

For more information, please contact:

Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager | 660.562.1704 | Fax: 660.562.1900

Northwest Missouri State University
215 Administration Building | 800 University Drive | Maryville, MO 64468