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Virtual Sandbox Supports Instruction in Elementary Schools

Playing in sandboxes is rarely a school activity that integrates into K-5 science and social studies instruction, but thanks to the generous support from the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology Department (CAAE) at North Carolina State University, nearly every student at Morris Grove Elementary School (MGES) has been playing in a sandbox recently. More important, they have been learning about erosion, watersheds and North Carolina landforms, even as they scooped and swirled their fingers through the illuminated mounds of “magical” sand.

virtual sandbox image The Augmented Reality Sandbox is the official name of the resource, which actually comprises several pieces of technology, beyond the sandbox itself. The AR Sandbox uses a computer projector and a motion sensing input device (a Kinect 3D camera) mounted above the sand. A team at the CAAE built the Sandbox as an education outreach tool, a project that was supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Last week, as students interacted with the sand, the Kinect 3D camera perceived distances to the sand surface and projected colors and contour lines accordingly. But they didn’t need to understand the physics of the equipment to appreciate the brilliant colors and the lessons evident in the sand forms.

Tracey Hartman, information technology facilitator at MGES, has been using the Sandbox with every class, including the kindergarten students. “Third and fourth grades have specific content I cover,” she said, “The others just kind of morphed into whatever they are most interested in.” During a session on Wednesday, January 23, Hartmann worked with small groups of students to examine water flow, elevations and retention ponds. The students couldn’t seem to get enough of the sand studies!

The AR Sandbox has been used at several CHCCS elementary schools for the past three years. Cathy Musci, ITF at Northside Elementary, said, “NCSU has been very gracious. I call each fall when our fourth graders begin their North Carolina landforms unit, and they bring a van with the set up. Besides our fourth grade unit, we've supported second graders, kindergarteners, and Newcomers classes with geography vocabulary (island, coast, mountain, lake, etc.)”

virtual sandbox concepts at MGES The students using the Sandbox quickly learn how to “make it rain,” by waving their hands over the sand from a certain distance. The virtual rain shimmers blue on the surface below. In a Navigator (Northside) News post from October, 2016, Musci observed, “The AR sandbox’s strongest appeal is the fact that it entices young and old to get involved. While the concepts and scenarios are kept simple for the younger kids, one can still discuss contour lines, mountains, piedmonts, valleys, damns, watersheds and basic water flow. The learning experience can include discussions of landforms, elevation, and best land management practices such as retention ponds and swales.  Processes such as erosion, tectonics, and glaciation can even be visualized. These elements are all principles of geomorphology, hydrology, earth science and environmental studies.” And don’t forget the principle of tactile exploration.

Many thanks to NCSU’s CAAE team for their loan of this valuable instructional tool!