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Engineering Project Helps Students Grasp Topography

the sand table created by HCC engineering

Geology professors at Howard Community College (HCC) agree topographic maps can be a difficult topic for their students to grasp.

“Students have a lot of trouble, I think, taking a two dimensional topographic map and visualizing what it looks like in three dimensions,” said Karen Bridges, assistant professor of Earth science. “Professor (Jennifer) Kling saw a project online that would address this and thought maybe we could build it here.”

What Kling, associate professor of physical science at HCC, had found was an Augmented Reality Sandbox, a handmade learning tool that projects an image of a topographic map onto the surface of a box of sand. To bring such a tool to her classroom, Kling turned to the engineering department. Tasking engineering students with the design and build provided a cross-disciplinary learning opportunity.

Last fall, the Augmented Reality Sandbox was among a list of semester-long projects students could choose from during Engineering and Technology Chair Mark Edelen’s Introduction to Engineering course. HCC students Justin Betz, Faisal Khan, Daniel Chukwurah, and Peter Kwon were up for the task.

“My group chose this project because it seemed like one of the more challenging and exciting projects,” Betz said. “We began working in the beginning of September and finished in early December just before Engineering Projects Night.”


Describing how it works, Betz explained that an image of a topographic map is projected onto the box of sand. The map includes features like color to show elevation, contour lines to show shape and elevation, and realistic water. When the surface of the sand is changed by the user’s hands, the map changes to display the changes in elevation and shape.

“Also, if the user does a gesture with their hand above the sand at a specific height, they can make it rain,” he said. “The water then flows over the features realistically.”

The sandbox is composed of four main components: a sandbox, a gaming computer, a projector, and a Microsoft Kinect sensor.

“The projector displays the image of the topographic map on the surface or the sand while the Kinect sensor scans the 3D surface and notices any changes,” Betz said. “The computer acts as the brain of the system. It not only contains the software and image that the projector displays, but also interprets the data from the Kinect sensor to change the map being displayed.”

Betz said the process of making the sandbox was fairly difficult, and the students met a handful of roadblocks along the way. But the group worked together and with the help of Edelen, found solutions to each obstacle they met.

The project was a success, and even won the “Audience Choice Award” at the Fall 2017 Engineering Projects Night, held in HCC’s new Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) building.

The sandbox is currently housed in the SET building, and will be used this spring semester in Geology 107 and 117 courses. The oceanography lab also plans to use the sandbox this fall.

“I really see this project as being one of the first things I’ve done that can really help other people,” Betz said. ”The AR Sandbox will help students learn by giving them a hands-on way to learn about topographic maps. Now, rather than simply viewing the map, they will actually be able to modify it and see how the map changes.”

Topics: Science & Tech
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