Engineering Group Project: AR Sandbox

Students collaborate on interactive, augmented reality exhibit

Joan Carter, engineering faculty at Inver Hills Community College, facilitated the design and construction of an augmented reality (AR) sandbox for use in her Engineering Fundamentals program as well as other programs at the college. Originally fabricated by researchers at the University of California, Davis, the AR sandbox is a hands-on, interactive exhibit that utilizes 3D visualization applications that allow students to mold the sand by hand and watch the topography react in real time.

The Inver Hills AR sandbox features an elevation color map, topographic contour lines and video monitor along with simulated water and lava.

“Building our AR sandbox was a challenge,” Joan Carter said. “A group of Engineering Club students visited the Science Museum of Minnesota on Civil Engineering Day. The Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors (MSPS) was at the museum with an AR Sandbox of their own. I contacted MSPS to see if they would let us use their plans.”

“I’m excited to be able to use the AR sandbox with my geology students! Many students have never seen a topographic map, and now they’re able to create three-dimensional landforms such as volcanoes, valleys, buttes, drumlins, moraines, sand dunes and more.”

— Erica Wood, Geology Faculty, Inver Hills Community College

Joan eventually connected with Nick Stewart, a professional surveyor in St. Louis County. Nick and a colleague built the AR sandbox for MSPS.

“Nick didn’t have plans for the MSPS build, but he volunteered to build a sandbox for Inver Hills,” Joan said. “I worked with Mary Jo Gardner, director of K–12 partnerships at the college, and was able to secure Perkins funding. Inver Student Life also provided funding. Nick and his son, Owen, constructed the AR sandbox for us in a couple weeks—Owen designed and welded the steel parts. Nick delivered the sandbox to the college over the Easter holidays. The whole process happened very quickly.”

Nick reported that the AR sandbox is a new and exciting tool for public relations events attracting attention to the professions of land surveying and civil engineering.

“My son and I have also developed a STEM classroom sandbox kit that allows instructors to guide students from the complete sandbox build to giving presentations for younger students and/or school events,” he said. “The idea for the kits was spawned from my involvement building the AR sandbox for Inver Hills. When delivering and discussing that sandbox with Joan Carter, I realized many school instructors and classrooms do not have the tools and/or area to fabricate one on their own. The kits allow for a clean classroom build without the need for extra tools and can be utilized year after year.”

The sandbox kits are featured on Nick’s website: Sawdust Carvings.

Gabriel Sieben, an Inver Hills student, was the lead on the project; he submitted the original proposal, which Joan described as “very well-thought-out.” Students Adam Dvorak, Blake Glewwe (his father, Kelton Glewwe, is an Inver alum) and Zach Olson worked on the project. Joan served as the project advisor. Todd Jagerson, chief information officer (CIO) at Inver Hills and Dakota County Technical College, helped out on the project. Todd attended an Engineering Club meeting to learn more and provided various supplies.

“We are looking forward to adding on to the AR sandbox and sharing our work with more programs,” Joan said. “This project was successful thanks to the help of many people. A special thanks to Hilary Dahlman and the Learning Center staff for embracing this project and giving the sandbox a prominent home where all students have access.”¹

Faculty perspective: Erica Wood

Erica Wood
Erica Wood

Erica Wood teaches geology courses at Inver Hills. Erica started teaching at the college in 2012. She earned an M.S. in Geology from the University of North Dakota in 2001. Her thesis was Lithospheric Flexure of the Devils Lake Basin, ND. She has a B.S. in Geological Engineering and a B.S. in Geology from UND. She transferred to UND from Gustavus Adolphus College.

Erica recognizes the learning potential of the AR sandbox and is including the project in her Geology curriculum.

“I’m excited to be able to use the AR sandbox with my geology students!” she said. “Many students have never seen a topographic map, and now they’re able to create three-dimensional landforms such as volcanoes, valleys, buttes, drumlins, moraines, sand dunes and more. The sandbox allows them to see the two-dimensional projection.”

Erica added that students can also “create” lava on a volcano or water on a mountain to see how and where they flow to determine hazardous areas. “And who doesn’t like to play in the sand?!” she said with a smile.

Erica recently brought several of her geology students to the college’s Learning Center to investigate the AR sandbox.

More about Geology at Inver Hills…

As a major academic discipline, geology interprets the history of the Earth by exploring plate tectonics and climates of the distant past. Geologists play key roles in conserving the resources that support modern civilization, including fossil fuels and minerals, freshwater and a clean environment.

Geology courses at Inver Hills cover the physical and historical aspects of the science as well as the power of natural disasters and their impact on humankind. You can apply your science-with-lab coursework toward the Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree requirements or toward transfer to a four-year college or university.

Learn more by visiting Geology.

Student perspective: Gabriel Sieben

Gabriel Sieben
Gabriel Sieben

Gabriel Sieben, 18, is a home-schooled, PSEO student following the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum (MnTC) at Inver Hills. A member of Engineering Club, Gabriel was the project lead on the AR sandbox.

The oldest of six children, Gabriel is focusing his academic and career aspirations on computer engineering and one day owning and running his own company. He chose Inver Hills because his grandmother and two aunts studied nursing at the college; his father is also an Inver alum.

AR Sandbox Q & A

How would you describe your AR sandbox group project?
The Augmented Reality (AR) sandbox is a physical sandbox located on the second floor of the Library building. Unlike other sandboxes you may have played with before, this sandbox includes a depth-sensing camera and projector mounted over it; both are connected to a computer. This computer uses the depth-sensing camera to measure the height of the sandbox surface, including mountains and valleys you may have shaped, and projects coloring and topographic lines on top of the sandbox surface.

The lowest areas are blue while the highest areas are snowy white—and the colors change from green to red in between. Instead of messy water, the computer can also project virtual water, which flows from high points in the sand (like mountaintops) to lower points (like valleys you have dug with your hands).

This water also reacts to what you do in the sandbox. If you dig a pit and fill it with virtual water and then quickly fill that pit with sand, the virtual water will splash out all over the place. It’s your childhood sandbox upgraded.

What is the chief purpose of the AR Sandbox?
The current main purpose of the sandbox is as a stress-reliever for the many math and engineering students in the Learning Center and at Inver Hills in general. There is something therapeutic about resting your mind while doing something tactile (like digging through sand), instead of virtual (like checking for new posts).

In the future, we hope to add gravitational physics simulation software to the sandbox, which will make it useful for students studying engineering dynamics, astronomy and physics. We will tie in the sandbox to geology classes, as the sandbox can make it easier for students to understand how topographic maps work and how the 3D surface is converted to a 2D drawing.

More about Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills…

The Engineering department at Inver Hills stands out as a wise starting point if you are interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering including civil, electrical, or mechanical at the following universities:

Engineering Fundamentals Associate of Science (A.S.) degree – 60 credits

The A.S. in Engineering Fundamentals prepares you for transfer to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor’s degree in the field of engineering, including such disciplines as civil, electrical, mechanical and more. The program covers courses typically offered in the first and second years of an accredited engineering curriculum in the U.S. You are strongly encouraged to become informed of the rules and requirements related to the major department at the four-year college or university where you plan to transfer. This program also prepares students seeking employment with a strong foundation in engineering principles and practices.

Learn more by visiting Engineering.

What was your biggest challenge working on the project?
Surprisingly, the technical side of the project went very smoothly until the last step, which made me almost ready to pull my hair out. We had a faulty 3D-sensing camera, which looked like it was working and just not calibrated yet, but was in fact sending in piles of bad data that made calibration impossible.

After several failed calibration attempts, I replaced the faulty camera and the new camera worked on the first attempt. We also had significant difficulties with how to build the sandbox itself. We didn’t have any experience with welding, and our woodworking skills are not our strength.

We had been trying to figure out how to retrofit an old metal cart from Geology, which wasn’t ideal for our purposes, and we went back and forth on whether to retrofit the cart or design the frame from scratch.

Just when we thought there was no way we would finish the project on time for this semester, we found Nick Stewart and Owen Stewart of Sawdust Carvings, who had a sandbox design that was both beautiful, practical and could be completed quickly.

Joan Carter and the Stewarts did an amazing job with the logistics and managed to pull everything together to have the frame built and delivered on time for us to add the technology, get it calibrated, and put it on display before summer classes began.

What did you learn from working on the project?
I learned a surprising amount about project management. I know that there are many courses and books about project management in this world, but leading a small project can teach the basics very quickly. I learned how to make a high-quality project proposal (which has many pages of glorious details), the general process of pitching ideas to a funding source, how to make the project sound interesting to potential team members, and how to lead this team toward getting the project completed.

I also learned more about Linux computer systems: How to install graphics drivers, build some source code, hunt down compiling errors, configure that code to our preferences, and make the system robust enough to safely turn on and off every day without a mouse or keyboard attached.


Study physical aspects of the earth, such as rocks, soils, and other materials.

This is a very high-wage career. It pays well above the statewide median of $20.07/hour


Median: $43.50/hour
High: $60.73/hour

Seven-county Twin Cities metro

Median: $33.88/hour
High: $44.11/hour


This career is seeing very high growth compared to other careers. Growth rate is 12.7 percent, or well above the statewide average. There will be a need for about 240 new Geoscientists to meet market demand between 2016–2026. This includes the demand due to replacement (workers leaving the occupation or retiring) as well as growth.

Minnesota State CAREERwise Education

Mechanical Engineers

Use engineering principles to design tools, engines, and other mechanical equipment.

This is a very high-wage career. It pays well above the statewide median of $20.07/hour


Median: $38.82/hour
High: $48.21/hour

Seven-county Twin Cities metro

Median: $40.23/hour
High: $49.47/hour


This career is currently in very high demand and is seeing high growth compared to other careers. Growth rate is 9.8 percent, or above the statewide average. There will be a need for about 5,255 new Mechanical Engineers to meet market demand between 2016–2026. This includes the demand due to replacement (workers leaving the occupation or retiring) as well as growth.

Minnesota State CAREERwise Education

Learn more about Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills by contacting:

Joan Carter, PE (MN, IA, CA)
Engineering Faculty

Learn more about Geology at Inver Hills by contacting:

Erica Wood
Geology Faculty

¹ Acknowledgements:
The Augmented Reality Sandbox reference design was developed by the UC Davis W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences and supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL 1114663. For more information, please visit Augmented Reality Sandbox.
The Inver Hills AR sandbox was designed and built by Nick Stewart and Owen Stewart of Sawdust Carvings.
Funding was obtained from Inver Hills Student Life and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, Public Law 105-332.
Joan Carter also wishes to thank Provost and VP of Academic Affairs Tia Robinson, who approved the project, Learning Center tutors, IT techs, and operations and administrative staff.

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