A sandbox education

Henry and Lizzy Bean play Friday in the University of Wyoming Geology Department’s Augmented Reality Sandbox, which displays a topographic map that can be manipulated by moving the sand. JEREMY MARTIN/Boomerang photographer


Children are drawn to The University of Wyoming Geological Museum by the many dinosaur bones, fossils and posters — but an interactive exhibit keeps them coming back.

An augmented reality sandbox has been on display at the museum for a few months and quickly became a fan favorite, said Laura Vietti, Geological Museum collections manager.

“It highlights what a topographic map is in real time,” she said. “It’s an intuitive and useful way of looking at landscaping features — it’s an easy way to show 3-D features from a 2-D projection.”

A box filled with sand is continuously analyzed by a scanner situated above the box; a projector next to it shoots a topographical map onto the sand based on its elevation. If a sand mountain is made in the box, the projection will show, through lines and colors, it is higher than the surrounding sand.

“(The children) are learning stuff, but they don’t realize they’re leaning anything,” Vietti said.

Ashley Bean frequents the museum with her two children: Lizzy, 5, and Henry, 3. Ashley said the sand table is by far their favorite exhibit in the museum.

“We come here pretty often for about an hour, an hour-and-a-half” she said. “They come back (to the sand table) about three times.”

Her two children stood around the box, pushing and forming the sand while the lines and colors show in real time the difference in elevation.

“It’s fun because you can make things pop up on (the sand),” Lizzy said. “I like making water too.”

The sandbox also has the ability to showcase realistic water changes, Vietti said.

Holding a hand above the table simulates a rain cloud, pouring graphically-produced water onto the sand. It then flows down the mountains or flats into valleys, just as real rain does.

Of course, some children like playing in the box for other reasons.

“I get to play in the sand,” Henry said. “It gets me messy, and I like it.”

His sister chimed in immediately.

“You just like throwing sand,” Lizzy said.

Their mom Ashley said interactive parts of the museum like the sandbox are the most fun for her children.

“They’re a little bit young for some of the things here, so the things they can touch — the dinosaur bones, the fossils over there — are their favorite things,” she said.

Even school field trips to the museum can get distracted by the sandbox, for better or worse, Vietti said.

“We put more emphasis on the other exhibits because they spend so much time playing here,” she said.

Luckily, interactive sandboxes can be used throughout the state, Vietti said.

“The first prototype was finished last October,” she said. “It’s smaller and can travel anywhere. It can be used in the classroom easily.”

The sandbox also isn’t limited for use by children, Vietti said.

“The adults are a little more cautious first, but as soon as they get their hands on it, they have a lot of fun,” she said.

While the sandtable is one of the newest interactive exhibits in the museum, Vietti said it should be the start of a more hands-on museum.

“It’s a goal for what we want the museum to be,” she said. “It compliments a more geology-focused exhibit we want to continue to grow.”

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