The Sandbox Project: Using Augmented Reality to Improve Geomorphological Understanding

Continuing our series of updates on the 2016 Teaching Innovation Awards, Prof. Jo Bullard explains how a regular sandbox can be transformed into a unique teaching and learning experience.

Many students and visitors to the Geography Social learning Space over the past few weeks have stopped for a few minutes (or longer!) to interact with the Sandbox that is currently under development.  What is so special about a box of sand?  Well this one has been built using a 2016 Teaching Innovation Award aimed at using augmented reality to improve geomorphological understanding.  When the box of sand is connected to a camera and projector it becomes possible for users to create and visualize landscapes.  As the sand is sculpted, contours are projected on to the miniature landscape.  By hovering a hand over the box, users can make it ‘rain’ over the landscape and the water flow down in to rivers and valleys.

How was it developed?
The basic programming for the Sandbox is open source software developed at UCDavis and Computer Science student Yuan Tian and technician Kip Sahnsi worked last summer to get the computer code running on a special computer.  In the meantime Joanna Bullard and Richard Harland in Geography built the box which is on wheels so that it can be transferred between Geography and Computer Science and also to other events on campus.

What’s next?
There are a few sandboxes now up and running in the UK.  In December 2016 Prof. Jo Bullard from Loughborough University, Dr. Annie Ockelford (University of Brighton), Dr. Lynda Yorke (Bangor University) and Dr. Chris Skinner (University of Hull) jointly convened a session at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting on Technology-Enhanced Teaching in Geosciences which featured a number of papers exploring how to support undergraduate student learning using augmented reality and we are hoping to include some of these ideas in our teaching in the future.

The Loughborough Sandbox is currently being ‘tweaked’ to improve the visualization and accuracy of the projection data but will be back up and running soon.

Gamification for Learning in Electrotechnology

Dr Thomas Steffen, a recipient of a 2016 Teaching Innovation Award (TIA), explains how he has applied gamification to learning electrotechnology.

What did you want to achieve?

This project set out with a rather simple idea: to use an interactive simulation tool to teach students the basics of electric circuits in TTB211 Electrotechnology. We all know that electricity cannot be seen and should not be felt, so how do you learn about it? The project quickly gained momentum and additional facets, and now it includes four novel aspects:

    1. a browser based circuit simulation tool (everycircuit)
    2. gamification: a mobile game based on the same tool (circuit jam)
    3. an open source textbook
    4. a set of tutorial questions developed in Germany by Prof Kautz

So how do these work together?

A circuit simulation in Learn

A circuit simulation in Learn

The browser based simulation Everycircuit is great to use in the lecture, and I have done that before. But this time I want to go further, and so I have embedded simulations into a number of summary pages on Learn. Students will also have the ability to modify existing simulations or to create new ones. In my opinion, this really makes a difference, because it turns “magic” invisible electricity into something that students can play with and experience. Have a go with a Parallel resistors simulation.

The gamification aspect relies on a mobile game available in the Google Play Store, which includes a number of puzzles based on the same circuit simulator. So students get a familiar user interface, a portable way of learning, and the motivation of having clear goals and tracked progress. If you have an Android device, you can try a demo at: . (Providing for students without a personal Android device is one of the challenges here, and there are a number of alternatives available.)

The open source textbook is an existing project at In many ways, it is rather conventional, but it does offer two key advantages: for the students, it is more accessible and flexible than a library, and for the lecturer it offers the advantage that it can be edited and redistributed. I do not expect to put much effort into the second part this time, but going forward that is a significant opportunity.

Finally, I discovered a set of tutorial questions and exercises developed in Germany for a project in subject didactics in electrical engineering. The theoretical basis is a definition of two threshold concepts: electrical potential, and circuits as models [Brose, A., & Kautz, C. (2010). Research on student understanding as a guide for the development of instructional materials in introductory engineering courses. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium for Engineering Education. Ireland: University College Cork]. The exercises are specifically designed and verified to reinforce these threshold concepts and to avoid common misconceptions found in student responses.

Has this affected your teaching?

Close to the beginning of the semester, I find myself well equipped and prepared to deliver this module, not just from an academic perspective, but also from a pedagogical point of view. Using these resources allows me to free up lecturing time to make the lectures more interactive, it helps to provide ample of simulations, exercises, homework and tutorial questions for reinforcement, and it includes the novel element of gamification to keep students engaged.

How has it been received by students?

The interactive simulation has already been tried in a smaller postgraduate module, and was received very well by the students. The gamification part and the tutorials not been used so far, but a thorough evaluation is planned. An update will be provided once the results are in.

See also:
Further information about the Teaching Innovation Award: