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Not your average sandbox

Children at St. Agnes School dig their hands into a 3D sandbox that gave them insights into topography. (Contributed photo)1 / 2
Ali Fischer works hard to recreate a topographical map with her classmates in the Augmented Reality Sandbox. (Emily Myrin / Echo Press)2 / 2

Barbara Peterson's first grade classroom at St. Agnes Elementary School spends a lot of time playing in the sandbox.

But this isn't the sandbox you remember from the school yard. This sandbox cost nearly $2,000 and isn't just for making sandcastles.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox that's been stationed in Peterson's classroom helps the students understand and visualize topography in a 3D and tactile way. The students mold and move the sand contained within the sandbox and a projector connected to an Xbox 360 console projects colors and lines onto the sand to reflect the different elevations and topographical shapes the children create.

The children in Peterson's class studied a map of a particular area in Todd County. The children noted that there was a road in the landscape, a high concentration of bodies of water and a big steep hill.

Then they sunk their little fingers into the soft white sand and watched the colors shift and change, as they recreated the map projected on the wall.

Shannon Wettstein from the Todd County Soil and Water Conservation District heard about a new sandbox design created by the University of California Davis and wanted to bring the learning possibilities to Todd County.

Wettstein secured half of the funding for the pricey sandbox from a Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative Round-up grant and Todd County compliance funds.

One of the Todd County's master gardeners volunteered to build the structure, an intern at Todd County SWCD provided the fine, white Wisconsin sandstone and the Geological Information System took the designs and programmed the devices to work together.

"It's all interactive so as you build it you have contour lines that show elevation, colors and all that stuff," Doug Thom from the GIS said. "You can add rain and water in there. We're still learning what we can do with it."

Wettstein and the GIS originally teamed up to create the sandbox for the Enviro Fest, an annual event put on every year by the Todd County SWCD for any sixth grader in the county to attend and learn about natural resources.

"We were peeling a potato before to show topography. So this is a big jump," Thom said about the presentations at the Enviro Fest. "The kids love it. We told them to build something and add water and I asked them to tell me where it would flow. They knew exactly where it was going to go. They got the grasp of it."

After its big success at the Enviro Fest, the sandbox is now being passed around between schools and museums in the the area.

Peterson's class played host for a month. Other St. Agnes classrooms came by and experienced this new technology as well.

"The third and fourth graders were already asking questions about how you could change it," Peterson said. "They asked about reprogramming the colors to represent lava or building landscapes around a particular local landmark. It's an extraordinary exercise in cooperation, too."

The GIS is already exploring with how the interactive topographical map can serve their professional purposes as well. They are experimenting with visualizing the effects a dam will have on a certain area or what effect ditches in overflow will have.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox is leaving Todd County for a science museum, but it will be back, Thom said, for more Todd County children to get their hands dirty as they explore the hills and valleys of the local landscape.