New, hands-on exhibit at EMS Museum teaches basics of topographical maps

by Liam Jackson
March 29, 2016

A new, interactive exhibit on display in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery lets visitors get their hands full of learning and fun. Using the Augmented Reality Sandbox, which was unveiled in spring 2016, visitors get a hands-on lesson in how topographical maps work.

EMS Museum & Art Gallery - Topographic Map Exhibit

In spring 2016, the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery debuted a new exhibit, which teaches the basics of topography. Russ Graham, director of the museum, explains how the hands-on exhibit teaches visitors about topography and hydrology. 

“In education, and especially in science education, there’s a concern about how to effectively teach spatial visualization skills. This exhibit provides a nice way to let people visualize topographical maps. On a traditional, two-dimensional topographical map, you can see contour lines — but when you are the one making changes to the map through this new exhibit, you can see what those contour lines actually mean,” said Julianne Snider, assistant director for exhibits and collections for the EMS Museum & Art Gallery.

The exhibit uses a Microsoft Xbox Kinect sensor to detect changes to the elevation of the sand in real time. The Kinect sends that information to a computer that projects a colorful topographical map, complete with contour lines, onto the sand. Visitors can create mountains, valleys, rivers, cliffs and many other types of landscapes — then see how the contour map changes based on their creation. Visitors can also make clouds with their hands, which will create virtual rain that flows to a point of lowest elevation. The 200 pounds of sand in the exhibit is antimicrobial kinetic sand, which is easy to shape because it only sticks to itself.

“In the EMS museum, we try to get people to understand and appreciate science, especially the scientific process,” said Russ Graham, director, EMS Museum & Art Gallery. “This exhibit facilitates that understanding by letting people understand how contour maps are created, and it also illustrates fundamentals of hydrology, such as how water flows to the lowest elevation. We know that most people learn better with hands-on experiences, and we hope that this project is both fun and educational for our visitors.”

The exhibit was spearheaded by Ken Mankoff, research associate with the Department of Geosciences, who leverages the Xbox Kinect’s high-resolution sensor in his research.

“The Kinect is a cost-effective version of a traditional laser scanning system, and it detects 9 million points per second. In my research I use this to create millimeter-resolution maps of tunnels underneath glaciers,” he said. “Education is important to me, so I thought it would be good to put together this exhibit.”

Visitors can use the sandbox in the EMS Museum and Art Gallery in 16 Deike Building from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox was funded by the Department of Geosciences and the EMS Museum & Art Gallery and constructed by staff at the EMS Machine Shop. 

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Last Updated March 31, 2016