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Augmented reality sandbox helps CCES students learn geography, science


Volunteers from Georgia Highlands College turned a $500 grant into a valuable learning tool for students at Clear Creek Elementary School.

GATEWAY teacher Robin Morrow received the grant from the Bartow Education Foundation to build a mobile augmented reality sandbox to help students learn about science and geography.

Augmented reality is any technology that superimposes some type of computer-generated image on a person’s or group’s view of the real world.

The sandbox allows teachers to create topography models by shaping real sand, which is augmented in real time by an elevation color map, topographic contour lines and simulated water. 

"Augmented and virtual reality are topics our students are eager to explore, and I felt the augmented reality sandbox would be a valuable asset in teaching science and geography standards," Morrow said. "As we become more comfortable with the technology, we would like to utilize it even more in classroom lessons on topographical maps, erosion, landforms, watershed, water cycle and more. There are science and social studies lessons and standards in every grade that can be enhanced by the augmented reality sandbox." 

Morrow said she first saw this new instrument of technology when she visited the St. Louis Science Center on vacation several years ago. 

"It was mesmerizing," she said. "I watched as young children and grown adults were all exploring this hands-on exhibit. I wished we had something closer for my own students to experience."

The next year, Morrow said she saw a mobile version of it at the Atlanta Science Festival Exhibition, and she was "able to evaluate the basic design and necessary components" needed to build one.

During a conversation she had with Dr. Greg Ford, dean of natural sciences and physical education at GHC, she said she mentioned the AR sandbox, "and he agreed to help make it a reality."

"My knowledge level of open-source programming, Linux and hardware is severely limited," she said. "Georgia Highlands College has been a generous supporter of the local schools, and they were intrigued by the concept from the beginning."

Ford said Morrow's passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as for her students "made me want to work with her and support her programs."

"Just like me, Robin understands that to garner interest in STEM, students have to be fully engaged through interactive activities," he said. "So Robin wrote a grant for this technology that I had never heard of and asked if I could assist. I wholeheartedly accepted the challenge."

Ford said the cost of a mobile unit would have been close to $2,000 so the natural sciences and information technology services employees who agreed to work on it brainstormed about how to do it for less.

The team decided the best way to help the school build the sandbox on a $500 budget was to create everything from the ground up, with the science department working on building a mobile module while the IT department constructed a computer to run the augmented reality program, according to a press release.

With the college providing the labor and some materials and designing and building multiple components, the result was a fully functional, mobile augmented reality sandbox for less than $500.

"We were able to complete the project [under budget] because I work with some of the best people in the world who care about the students and the communities we serve," Ford said. "Mark Huguet researched and found the best components to fit within the budget and built the computer from the ground up. Mark also programmed the computer [from home on weekends] and set up the hardware once the table was constructed. Jason Christian and I designed and built the table from an extra rolling cart we had in a lab and parts we purchased from a local hardware store. Finally, the Kinects unit, the projector and power cords were donated by parents." 

Ford said the project "took several months to complete because all of the labor was done on a volunteer basis."

"I reached out to the entire IT department, and in the middle of several major projects, they collaborated with me, and we made a plan to pull this off," he said. 

Morrow said the finished product is "a dream come true."

"It took some time to make it a reality, but our patience was rewarded," she said. "I am thrilled to see they have taken the concept and made it even better."

The AR sandbox made its debut at Clear Creek's Pi Day event last March. 

"We wanted it to be our Pi Day station because it was really fun to play with, and I love science," said fifth-grader Alyssa Heathers, 10. "When we brought the kindergartners to try it, they were pretty excited to see the sandbox, and when they figured it out, they had lots of fun."

Rylie Bright, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, said the sandbox is a "table filled with sand with a projector and a motion sensor that when you move the sand, it changes the landform projected on the sand."

"The reason I chose to do this station is to see kids get excited about landforms and science," she said. "We got some kindergartners to test out the sandbox, [and] these kids had so much fun making mountains and valleys."

Ford said he also was "very happy with the final product." 

It turned out so well, in fact, that the team built a larger stationary unit for the geology lab on GHC's Floyd campus and plans to construct one for the Cartersville site.