Visualizing Flows – A Sandbox Experience with Modeling

by Jeanette Newmiller

In winter quarter 2016, Dr. Colleen Bronner of the UC Davis Department of Civil Engineering gathered a small group of graduate students and posed a challenge. To support new education standards involving teaching engineering methods throughout K-12 education, Dr. Bronner asked the graduate students design education outreach modules that reflected their research work in engineering. The modules should engage students in understanding the work of engineers while satisfying several Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Math Standards. Ultimately, the modules needed to be accessible for K-12 teachers to use.

Challenge accepted.

As a graduate student with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, I’m producing a computer model of potential scenarios for passing water from the Sacramento River to Yolo Bypass in low flow conditions for winter run juvenile salmon access to beneficially flooded fields (see Nigiri Project). Most of the work is on a computer… using specialized software… that I run off a server with 64 processing cores… hmmm… kids… big computers… complex software… kids…

… I have a great job with a cool story about how engineering can help baby salmon eat more food, grow bigger, and have a better chance of survival once they hit the ocean. What I needed was a computer model accessible to kids. So bring on the Augmented Reality Sandbox developed by UC Davis researcher Oliver Kreylos.

The Augmented Reality (AR) Sandbox lets kids (ages 3 to 103) build a watershed model in real sand. A sensor monitors the changes in the sand’s shape, a computer processes the information, and a projector displays the computer model back onto the sand in the form of a digital elevation map (DEM) with a vibrant color gradient and contour lines. The model uses the Saint-Venant set of equations for shallow water to produce a realistic simulation of water flow over the landscape. The sand is essentially the input and output device for a fairly sophisticated surface water computer model – totally accessible to kids.

The existing AR Sandbox at the UC Davis KeckCAVES is big and it is heavy. Moving it almost requires a forklift. For use in classrooms it must be portable. I designed and built an AR Sandbox on a rack that allows it to be rolled though an ADA compliant door. It can be easily disassembled, packed into a car, and reassembled on site without tools. The Sandbox can be set up at different heights to accommodate kids of different ages or abilities.

The portable AR Sandbox and supporting activities were recently tested with a group of middle and high school teachers and a group of 3rd-5th grade girls. The sandbox was a hit, with excellent feedback to help develop curriculum which I plan to submit to the TeachEngineering digital library of K-12 curriculum.

As with all sand boxes, keeping the sand in the box remains a problem.

Another AR Sandbox will be on display in the Lobby of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Stay tuned…

Jeanette Newmiller is a graduate student in the UC Davis department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and student researcher at the UCD Center for Watershed Sciences. Her work focus on the development of surface water models for the integration of human and ecological needs.

The technology for the Augmented Reality Sandbox was developed by the LakeViz3D project – UC Davis KeckCAVES, UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Lawrence Hall of Science, ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, and Audience Viewpoints, and funded by the National Science Foundation. This portable exhibit was designed and constructed by Jeanette Newmiller with support from the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (Award Number: 1449501).

Further Reading

Augmented Reality Turns a Sandbox into a Geoscience Lesson, EOS, 2016.



This entry was posted in education, Tools, Uncategorized, Virtual Water, Water System Modeling and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Visualizing Flows – A Sandbox Experience with Modeling

  1. Jim Ruebush says:

    I taught high school science for 38 yrs. Things like this are inspiring. Big thanks to the developer.


  2. Susan Marshall says:

    Fabulous project. Something that will stimulate young and old minds.. So COOL!!


  3. Pingback: MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK - Water news

  4. Pingback: MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK - Water news

  5. Hi Jeanette, this is Daniel Cardozo. We met yesterday at picnic day, sand I wanted to say again how much I enjoyed seeing your portable version of the AR Sandbox in person! I’d love to brainstorm other lessons that can be enhanced by this machine: physics, math, even economics. Fantastic work!


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