New Technology at Parkland: Part 2

Below, Earth Science Professor Julie Angel shares how Parkland’s new Augmented Reality Sandbox (ARS) helps students “see the lay of the land” to improve map-reading skills. Julie also demonstrates the new system in an upcoming video to be shown during the Pygmalion Tech Fest.
**Parkland is a presenting partner of the Pygmalion Festival, September 23-27, which includes a Tech Festival on Friday, Sept., 25 at Krannert Center in Urbana. The Tech Festival is FREE for all Parkland students with a valid ID.**



I am thankful to teach at an institution that values the use of innovative technology and the role it plays in student success! Collaboration between the Parkland College Department of Natural Sciences, Campus Technologies, and our Physical Plant during summer 2015 resulted in the construction and implementation of an “Augmented Reality Sandbox” (ARS).

Why the ARS Was Created and What It Does 
This recently developed, hands-on, real-time modeling system was designed and created by scientists at UC Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES) in cooperation with UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, and the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Burlington, Vermont. The sandbox system was developed as part of an NSF-funded project to teach earth science concepts through 3D visualization applications. These institutions have graciously shared instructions for building the sandbox as well as the powerful software that produces a variety of graphic effects and simulations.

Earth Science will be using this technology to continue our practice of hands-on learning. We find that students understand difficult and sometimes abstract earth processes when they have the opportunity to use their visual and tactile senses to explore those processes.

Earth Science students work with the ARS during their topographic map lab, where learning outcomes focus on reading and interpreting topographic maps. These maps contain natural and man-made features such as rivers, roads, and towns, along with a second dimension: topographic contour lines. Contour lines show areas of equal elevation across the map and the rise and fall of the land surface, the “lay of the land.” Map reading is slowly becoming a lost skill, so many students have had little to no experience with maps, especially those that feature contour lines.

How Students Learn from the New Technology
The sandbox, and its ability to produce 3D topographic models, allows students and instructors to create their own landscapes and to see the overlay of contour lines on their custom land surface. Students engage critical thinking skills when creating their personalized landscapes, with the freedom to create mountains, valleys, streams, volcanoes, and other earth landforms. The opportunity to read and interpret the contour lines projected onto the 3D sandbox topography develops knowledge and skills that are transferred to more effectively reading and interpretating contour lines on a traditional 2D map.

Earth Science also focuses on the interaction between humans, the solid earth, and its atmosphere. In geology, we study surface streams and the potential for flooding in low-lying areas. Would you believe we are able to produce virtual rain with the ARS? The students can wave their hands above the surface (or use a “Storm on a Stick”) and produce rain over a specific region of the sand topography. This allows us to create models that include natural and man-made features (levees, homes, roads, etc.) to predict where flooding will occur and the effect it will have on human and natural landscapes.

Mass wasting is a process by which earth materials move downslope under the influence of gravity. Think landslides, slow creep of material down a hillside, falling rock, etc. As you can imagine, mass wasting occurs in most every landscape on earth, but can be catastrophic in areas where the terrain is steep. Here in Illinois, we don’t think much about the danger of landslides, but it’s on the minds of the people of southern California on a day-to-day basis! We can create models with the ARS to promote critical thinking by visualizing and predicting areas that are at highest risk for mass wasting.

The possibilities are endless for promoting student success by creating meaningful, realistic exercises that capitalize on the powerful modeling capabilities of the ARS!

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