ACC geology students build virtual sandbox

Playing in the sand just got more interesting: Two Austin Community College students are using technology to turn a simple sandbox into an interactive tool for teaching concepts in geology and environmental science.

By mimicking the topographic features of a landscape, the augmented-reality (AR) sandbox provides hands-on lessons in geological topics such as landforms and erosion.

IMG_7694“It can be hard to understand geology when you’re not working with it firsthand,” says Cory Holmes, ACC student and co-creator of the ACC AR sandbox. “We get that opportunity in class through field trips and labs. This sandbox will allow us to bring that experience to others without ever leaving their classroom.”

The sandbox uses sensors, responsive software, and a projector to simulate topographical features on the sand. The projector displays a color-coded contour map on the sand, with lines portraying different elevations. When the sand is moved and molded, the topography changes in real-time.

“It brings geology to people in a way that’s easy-to-learn,” says Eric Hiatt, an ACC geology student who designed the ACC sandbox with Holmes. “Every rock has a story from formation to where it is now. Being able to read that story is fascinating.”

Users can even make it rain. The shadow of a hand mimics a cloud. Water then appears to trickle onto the sand below and begins flowing down hills and mountain peaks, ultimately demonstrating how erosion occurs.

“We want to get people excited about science,” Holmes says. “A lot of people will look at a paper map and say ‘I don’t know what I’m looking at.’ We want to help.”IMG_7723

Hiatt and Holmes are sharing their creation with ACC’s Geology Department and plan to take it to area schools to get younger generations excited about science.

“It’s a way of getting geology out into the community,” says Hiatt. “Even adults act like kids around the sandbox; building mountains and carving out rivers.”

For more information about the ACC Geology Department, visit Registration is underway now for spring. Visit to enroll.

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