Building a Virtual Watershed at Sensor Place: Q & A with Shane Rogers

Shane Rogers is the brains behind Sensor Place, our new interactive learning space that we wrote about on December 1.You are welcome to a family-friendly opening reception on Saturday, December 5, Noon – 2:00 PM in our storefront location at 199 Main Street in Beacon, NY. Thereafter, Sensor Place will be open to the public Thursdays and Fridays 1 – 5 PM; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 AM – 3 PM. Make reservations at this link. The following interview first appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Terry Platz: What prompted you to build a 3D watershed? How does it work?

Shane Rogers: A high school science teacher in the North Country of New York, Rick Marshall, approached me a couple years ago interested in building one of these virtual watersheds for students in his school for hands-on instruction. Not long after, a student of mine at Clarkson University, Charles Wilson, approached me with an interest to build one of these to motivate future students in engineering at Clarkson. I worked with Charlie on a special project to put together a simple “how-to” 3D step-by-step guide so that other schools, museums and individuals would have a simple parts list, example cabinet design, and links to the software, installation, and calibration instructions put together by Oliver Kreylos at the University of California, Davis so they could build their own. Though virtual watersheds already existed, there were, and still are, very few that are available to the public. The prototype resulting from this project is bound for Beacon Institute’s new Sensor Place center in the storefront at 199 Main St.

The Virtual Watershed is an interactive educational tool that is a brilliant combination of science, computer technology and engineering. It works with a projector and a motion-sensing device (Microsoft Kinect 3D camera) that is mounted in a case above a sandbox. It is programmed to project a topographical map onto the sand with colors that correspond to elevation. Water emerges as the user digs into the sand – kind of like what happens when playing with sand at the beach. The Kinect and projector are calibrated so when people play with the sand, e.g. dig a hole, the image updates instantly so they see the water filling the hole; the more you dig, what starts as a puddle can grow into a pond, a lake or a river. The water is a vivid blue and actually shimmers.

The Kinect is programmed with actual data, models of fluid dynamics that make this a virtual reality instrument. We hope to create programs to illustrate other watershed-related processes to heighten people’s awareness of the many important functions that these ecosystems provide.

TP: The 3D virtual watershed exhibit is a stunning example of how technology can help drive home many concepts all at one time. Aside from its obvious ‘cool’ factor, what will kids learn as they manipulate the sand and see where the water flows?

SR: The first and most obvious lesson that the 3D watershed illustrates is topography, an important concept for kids to learn, as it has so many applications in the real world. The topographical lines and colors projected onto the sand represent different elevations. When kids shape the sand, they’ll notice the lines and colors change: lines will get closer together where there are slopes and colors will give the sand a dimension. Piles of sand look like hills, and dug-out spaces look like lakes and rivers. When kids hover their hands over the sand, it will ‘rain,’ and the ‘water’ will flow over the sand appropriate to the landforms they shape. This introduces kids to the concept of hydrology in an intuitive and fun way. Kids will see the water flow faster down steep slopes and pond in depressions. If they keep holding their hand over the sand, the rain intensifies and rivers will start to flood. This allows kids to visualize hydrology in real time, a concept that is difficult to observe on large spatial scales and long-time scales.

Geomorphology, or the study of how natural processes that occur on the earth’s surface can sculpt a landscape, is another concept that the virtual watershed can help kids understand. Humans are constantly manipulating the landscape to accommodate their needs, such as building roads for transportation or damming rivers for hydropower — the virtual watershed can provide an opportunity to open a discussion of how these changes can impact ecosystems. If you ask someone who’s playing with the 3D watershed ‘what happens to fish when they can’t swim to the ocean because of a dam?’ or, ‘if a factory is built near a river, what happens if there’s an accident and chemicals are spilled?’ they may begin to understand the complicated relationship between humans and nature.

With hands-on interaction, learning can be immediate. The beauty of technological innovations like what creates this virtual reality exhibit is that a whole landscape can be scaled to our fingertips and its quick-response interactivity makes cause and effect crystal clear.