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Augmented Reality

Wednesday, October 17, 2018  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS


Learning by doing has taken on a whole new dimension at The Altamont School in Birmingham, AL, in the past year. The addition of an augmented reality (AR) sandbox has enhanced the curriculum and building it has engaged students in a completely new way.  


After Rob Dominguez, director of education technology and 7thgrade geography teacher, took 23 students on an extended trip to Silicon Valley last fall, his interest in an AR rig grew to an all-time high. The students, who visited Yahoo headquarters and met with University of California, Berkeley professors, also were eager to get involved with a tech-based project back at home.  


Dominguez researched the requirements for an AR sandbox and found that it would not be as costly as he originally expected. The school’s director of technology donated a projector, the history department paid for the wood, the director of finance chipped in for the sand, the software was open source, and the camera was purchased by an anonymous donor. Altamont also took advantage of on-campus resources by utilizing engineering, construction, and software know-how from facilities director Jon Vann, physics teacher Katrina Dahlgren, and computer science teacher Ryan James. The cost of purchasing an AR sandbox is typically $6,000 to $8,000, but the price tag on the Altamont rig totaled only $300.


The project was open to all upper school computer science students; three of them jumped on board for the build, which took place exclusively after school. “The kids were invigorated by a computer science project,” Dominguez said. “Building something like this takes a lot of effort.” 


The students used “real-world” techniques in building the rig. They had to tap into project management skills and problem-solving skills, especially in dealing with setbacks. The group learned the unfortunate lesson that the doorways in campus facilities would not accommodate the newly built equipment. They had to redesign and rebuild the rig to transport it from the upper school computer science lab to its home in the 7th grade geography classroom. 


“We got to see the growth mindset in action and learn patience,” Dominguez said. The biggest takeaway? “Embrace failure,” he said. 


Since the rig’s arrival in geography classes in spring 2018, students have enjoyed the enhancement to their lessons. The AR sandbox uses 3-D visualization to teach geographic, geologic, and hydrologic concepts by allowing users to create topography models by shaping real sand. A literal sandbox is augmented in real-time with an elevation color map, topographic contour lines, simulated water using a 3-D camera, powerful simulation and visualization software, and a data projector. 


“They can physically simulate what they are learning about and manipulate the land mass,” Dominguez said. 


Other teachers are excited to use the sandbox as well. History teachers can recreate terrain from historic events such as the Vietnam War to help their students understand the physical conditions of that time period. There is also a water feature that science classes can incorporate.  


For an up-close look at the AR sandbox, watch this video

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