GOODING — This isn’t your childhood sandbox.
You don’t sit in it and make sandcastles. Instead, you load a topographic map on a computer and project a 3D image onto the sand. After sculpting it with your hands, you can feel geological features such as mountains and canyons.
In early December, the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding purchased an augmented reality sandbox using a $10,000 grant from the America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program, sponsored by the Monsanto Fund.
The $7,000 sandbox — a big box on wheels kept in a corner at the school library — mimics how things work in their natural environment. It allows students to have interactive learning experiences about topics such as land forms, the water cycle and erosion.
“It’s more hands-on and makes a lot more sense than a lecture or picture,” school librarian Sharlyn White Jackson said.
Students who are blind or visually impaired can feel features such as a plateau or canyon in the sand. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing can see the natural features in the sandbox “and it explains itself,” White Jackson said.
On Thursday, six high school girls — all of whom are either blind or visually impaired — worked with the sand along with science teacher Rose Crews.
They scooped up sand in their hands and let it run through their fingers. Small clouds of dust flew up.
Crews told students she wants to purchase an option for the sandbox to simulate earthquakes. But in terms of experiencing natural features, “I think your hands will be the best tool,” she said.
During the lesson, one girl said “let’s make a lake.” Another responded, “what shape?”
Conversations frequently started with a phrase like “let me try,” followed by students experimenting with shaping different geological features in the sand.
It was the first time 15-year-old Maizy Wilcox had used the sandbox. She said it helps her understand how mountains develop, as well as differences in elevation.
“I think it’s really neat,” she said. “I’ve never learned anything like it.”
The sandbox uses a Kinect 3D camera, like the ones used for Xbox game consoles. The school uses free, open source software to download topographic maps.
It can also simulate water and students can see the color of the sand change to represent changes in elevation.
“It helps these kids go places they’ve never been,” White Jackson said.
For children who are blind or have vision challenges, they may never see the Grand Canyon, she said, but with the augmented reality sandbox, “they can feel it.”
One of the first topographic maps White Jackson hopes to use with students is of the Snake River Canyon. “We drive over it all the time,” she said.
The sandbox makes abstract concepts easy to see, 18-year-old Taylor Bullock said through an American Sign Language interpreter. That includes how natural features are formed and different climates.
Bullock said she’d love to see a 3D topographic map of Costa Rica because she has heard there are gorgeous mountains there. She’d also like to learn how they developed over time.
The America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program wants to ensure students have the education and skills they need to fill an increasing number of science, technology, engineering and math jobs over the next 10 years, it said in a statement last month.
After local farmers nominate a school for grant funding, the school district must submit an application for a STEM-focused project. A national advisory council chooses the recipients.
At ISDB, school administrators decided to write a grant application for an augmented reality sandbox.
“In the era we’re in, we have to be a little more creative in how we do things,” White Jackson said.
Last year, the America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program awarded a total of $2.3 million in grants, it said in a statement. And since 2011, it has awarded more than $14 million to about 750 rural schools.
Back in Gooding, 17-year-old ISDB student Emi Ryland said one of the most interesting things she experienced using the sandbox was “the way the water and the land connects.”
In the future, she’d like to look at a 3D topographic map of Hawaii. “I’d like to see how volcanoes are made.”
If you do one thing: Jon and Jenni Jacobson will perform acoustical music from 6 to 8 p.m. at Twin Falls Sandwich Co., 128 Main Ave. N.
TWIN FALLS — As many as 120 minimum-security state prisoners could soon find themselves living and working in the Magic Valley.
The Idaho Department of Correction is interested in reopening a community reentry center in the Twin Falls area, much like the one that closed in 2011, IDOC director Henry Atencio confirmed Tuesday. The proposal has the support of Gov. Butch Otter, who recommended funding for the center in his fiscal year 2019 budget.
It’s thought that the proposed center, which would allow low-risk, low-security inmates to live and work in the community in the months leading up to their release, could help reduce recidivism rates and alleviate the state’s prison overcrowding problem.
The new center would offer roughly the same programming and opportunities as the Twin Falls Community Work Center, which closed after 19 years of operation due to a decreasing demand for work center beds in the state, according to Atencio. The old center employed 13 people at the time of its closure; the new center would likely have between 12 and 15 employees.
The main difference between the two is the building itself: the South Washington St. location of the Twin Falls Community Work Center was leased by the state. However, IDOC hopes to either buy or build any new center in Twin Falls, Atencio said. The governor has requested that $9,114,200 be transferred to the Permanent Building Fund to do so.
The state of Idaho currently has four reentry centers: two in the Boise area, and one each in Idaho Falls and Nampa.
While the centers offer various rehabilitation programs and other means of support, their main draw is the chance for inmates to work in the outside world as they prepare for release — a valuable networking opportunity for incarcerated people, who often struggle to find employment after leaving prison.
“If you’re facilitating contacts with prospective employers, that can be very helpful,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “A job is an important part of successful reintegration.”
An outside job also typically pays higher wages than a job in prison, providing inmates with money that can go toward things like restitution and child support.
“They’re going to make more money in a work center than they will in a job behind a prison fence,” Atencio said. “It’s just a great opportunity to really set up an inmate for a better transition back into our communities.”
Twin Falls Sheriff Tom Carter says he would welcome another reentry center to the area, as his department rarely received calls regarding trouble at the old center.
“I think when inmates get to a position that they land in a work center, they very seldom cause problems,” Carter said. “It gives us somewhat of a heads up on who is coming back into the community.”
Another expected benefit of the proposed center: its potential to alleviate severe overcrowding in state prisons. The new center in Twin Falls would likely have about 120 beds, according to Atencio.
Carter is hopeful that the alleviation effect could trickle down to the Twin Falls County Jail, which has regularly surpassed its capacity in recent months.
“A lot of the inmates we have are state inmates, and that’s because they don’t have a bed to put them in,” Carter said. “This could help some.”
While the addition of 120 new beds in the state could provide some immediate relief to the prison system, the more significant effects of adding a fifth reentry center would likely be felt down the road.
“One of the reason why states are flocking toward the use of specifically designed reentry centers is if we can help offenders address the impediments to reentry, then the recidivism rates are a lot lower,” said Shaun Gann, assistant professor of criminal justice at Boise State University.
“If they are able to successfully reintegrate back into the community, then 5, 6, 10 years down the road we can potentially start seeing less and less incarceration, simply because we have fewer repeat offenders going to prison,” he said.
La Vigne of the Urban Institute acknowledges that reentry centers can provide inmates nearing release with useful tools for reintegration.
But she questions whether dedicating more resources to help low-risk, minimum-security offenders is the most effective use of the state’s money.
“The research tells us that you should focus those resources on people who are at higher risk of recidivism and have greater needs for support,” La Vigne said. For these inmates, she notes, “there’s no step down.”