Virtual sandbox teaches students to solve problems from potholes to drainage

Sheffield Village/Sheffield Lake

by Michele Murphy

The sandbox was in the middle of the science classroom at Brookside Middle School. Science teacher Maria Ferrer had introduced her eighth-grade students to the concept just the day before. Today, they were working in small teams creating mountains and gullies, flooding them, drying them out, creating ridges, adding mountains and flattening them out again.

What could eighth-graders learn by playing in a sandbox?

Well, for one, they learned how potholes form. They also learned the importance of water retention basins to prevent street and basement flooding. They saw the effects of erosion as they forced virtual water down the side of a virtual hill.

In truth, this isn’t just any kind of sandbox. It is a virtual sandbox. It is connected to a computer with a projection screen that shows in color what happens to the earth — and the area surrounding it — when you build it up, pare it down or flood it.

The idea blossomed a year ago when Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Schools technology coordinator Doug Cogdell read about a virtual sandbox being used for learning purposes at the University of California-Davis. “Why not us?” he asked himself.

He applied for a grant to help pay for materials. He told two students about virtual sandbox, knowing of their keen interest in technology. Once the grant was awarded, they built one.

The sandbox is built with sand, a projector and a computer. It allows you to see a physical landscape and then change it with newly formed depressions, valleys or mountains.

Both Ferrer and Cogdell agree the sandbox makes learning science concepts more engaging, even fun. Ferrer says it helps her students to actually see how how hard-to-grasp concepts actually work, in addition to reading about them. Cogdell says the sandbox can be used to re-enact events from history to better understand why things happened. He used Hurricane Katrina as an example.

A quick internet search led to an article in Popular Science about how the U.S. military is using the virtual sandbox to plan battle strategy, knowing the landscape constantly shifts as a result of storms or bombs. Other agencies can use it to predict the path of forest fires or a flood zone.

Cogdell deeply believes in the value of the virtual sandbox as a learning tool across different grade levels. Since the creation of the sandbox, they have had hundreds of educators see their creation. One was Dave Miller from the Lorain County Educational Services Center (ESC). Cogdell says Miller “was floored by the project and my students’ presentation of it.” As a result, Miller began duplicating Sheffield’s sandbox and doing workshops in several counties.

“He uses our original model as a blueprint and has educators build them as we did. I would estimate that there are, or will be soon, dozens of them in classrooms throughout Ohio as a result of our senior project,” Cogdell states.

He adds that number may multiply this month as the sandbox is scheduled to make an appearance at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference (OETC) in Columbus.

“It is very gratifying to know that our small little senior project has taken off throughout the state and that many students are able to learn about watersheds and other earth science principles in a way that is both interesting and fun,” says Cogdell.


Virtual sandbox solves local problems – Brookside Middle School science teacher Maria Ferrer (in flowered top) works with students who are learning about geography and topography. More specifically, they see how creating depressions causes flooding or potholes, both of which are issues for local communities (Press photos – Michele Murphy)

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