Lake Tahoe sandbox exhibit brings watersheds to life

Margaret Moran
From left, Scarlett and Roxanne Reed, of Crystal Bay, create a sand mountain on Monday in the interactive, augmented-reality sandbox exhibit at the UC Davis Tahoe Science Center.
Margaret Moran / | North Lake Tahoe Bonanza

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Sophia Reed poses her hand above a mound of sand created in an indoor sandbox, causing virtual rain to form at the top before cascading down its sides.

This demonstration by the 12-year-old Crystal Bay resident and her two younger sisters Monday at the UC Davis Tahoe Science Center helped introduce the interactive, augmented-reality exhibit that brings watersheds to life for users.

“It’s a teaching tool for all ages,” said Geoffery Schladow, director of UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “… With this exhibit, they’re playing around, seeing the topographic map and watching how water flows downhill and where it goes.

“It becomes a game, and they’ve done it without really knowing they’ve learned something.”

As the Reed sisters crafted their mountain by scooping handfuls of fine sand from other areas within the box, a Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera and digital projector created virtual images that adjusted in real time.

The distance between the black contour lines projected onto the mountain got closer as its steepness grew. In addition, the colors indicating terrain height changed, becoming white (snow) at the top of the mountain, while dips at its base became green (land) and blue (water).

With the landscape to their liking, each of the sisters outstretched a hand over the creation, causing “rain” to fall underneath, with water eventually pooling into the landscape’s low-lying areas, creating lakes and rivers.

“It’s fun,” said Roxanne Reed, 10, as she continued to manipulate the watershed within the sandbox.

Having such an exhibit in Lake Tahoe is a wonderful asset, said the Reeds’ grandmother, Margaret Eadington.

“We live in a confined watershed, and it’s impacted by all the stuff that we do, so I think if kids can begin to understand the effect of water bringing contamination into the lake, maybe the next step is to understand the (contamination’s) impact on the lake,” Eadington said.

The exhibit, which cost approximately $15,000 to produce, is a part of the National Science Foundation-funded LakeViz3D project, which aims to use 3-D technology to teach audiences about watersheds and protecting lakes, Schladow said.

The sandbox is one of four created by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center and the UC Davis W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences.

“Some of the issues that concern Lake Tahoe — like the idea of urban water moving quickly over roads, picking up sediments and entering the lake — can be demonstrated with this,” said TERC education and outreach director Heather Segale.

The first prototype is on the UC Davis campus, while the other two are at UC Berkeley and the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt.

The Incline Village exhibit is available to the public from 1-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, outside the UC Davis Science Center’s 3-D theater, located at 291 Country Club Drive on the campus of Sierra Nevada College.

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