KALISPELL, Mont. - Even high school students enjoy playing in a sandbox.
In the back of Glacier High School earth science teacher Jaret Stump's classroom is a sandbox taken to another level through augmented reality.
In May, an earth science class was tasked with creating a lunar landscape in the augmented reality sandbox. Sophomore Chris Skelton began by shaping sand into a volcanic dome, his hands bathed in shades of orange, red and brown from an overhead digital projector. Moving his hands away the colors wrapped around the mound of sand denoting differences in elevation, which are tracked by a repurposed Kinect mounted over the sandbox. The Kinect was originally used to play video games on an Xbox console without controls by tracking user's movement through a specialized camera.
Next to Skelton, junior Bristal Smith planted a label in another lunar feature that results in more green colors.
"The colors are different ranges of elevation, so red would be a high elevation and the greens are lower elevations," Smith said.
As the sand surface is manipulated, the changes in depth are detected and processed by the Kinect and special computer software, Stump said. The data is rendered into the colored projection as well as a 3-D topographic map, which is displayed on a nearby computer monitor.
Stump said the sandbox teaches topography and how to read 2-D topographic maps.
"Reading a topographic map can really kind of be a challenge for them, and having the 3-D representation really helps put it together," Stump said.
"I look at a topo map and I can see all the hills and valleys because I know how to read it. When I look at it, I'm interpreting the 3-D nature of the landscape ... that interpretation of it is difficult. This helps them get there quicker because it's so interactive," he said.
Back at the sandbox, Smith raised her hand high above the sandy surface. White was projected on her arm and the detected elevation change appeared in real time on the computer monitor.
"That's a really high point," sophomore Josie Libby noted.
Free plans and software created by University of California, Davis researchers served as the blueprint for building Glacier's augmented reality sandbox.
A prototype was built last year and improved upon through an $1,800 Home Depot Foundation grant. "It took several people and students almost a year to develop. We just got it working," Stump said. "It also has a rain feature that allows students to place rain (pour water) anywhere on the surface to track drainage patterns and flooding," Stump said.
Glacier's augmented reality sandbox was built to be mobile. Stump said mobility was very important, so other departments could use it. He said art, math and special education staff have shown interest in using the sandbox.
"It's kinetic and very visual," sophomore Brooklynn Pitts said. "If you're a visual person you can see the layout. If you're kinetic, you're making the layout."
In similar fashion to a child's sandbox, Glacier's educational tool requires a bit of imagination.
"We can test out our own ideas and actually see it firsthand," Libby said.