Professor bringing 3-D to geography classrooms

With the recent popularity of stereoscopic 3-D movies like “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” a new generation of Americans are donning plastic, polarized glasses and enjoying images that seem to spill from the screen into the theater itself.

Now, supported by a two-year, $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, some of that stereoscopic pizzazz is finding its way into geography classrooms at KU and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Terry Slocum

“Our central question is whether stereo will lead to an improvement over a simple three-dimensional representation,” said Terry Slocum, associate professor of geography, who is leading the research. “The results would affect anyone who would want to use stereo either in a classroom or in research. So we would argue it could affect potentially thousands and maybe even millions of viewers.”

Slocum and his co-investigators now are developing stereoscopic 3-D materials for introductory physical geography classes at KU and Haskell. Those classes will be taught with and without stereoscopic 3-D visual cues. Then, researchers will analyze the speed and accuracy of students’ performance on tests, conduct interviews with students and gather focus groups to judge the impact of stereo 3-D displays. The Center for Teaching Excellence at KU will evaluate the results.

“Anything that you can show in three dimensions has the potential to be an improvement,” said Slocum. “For example, in cartography we could have data values for counties, which we call ‘enumeration units.’ We can raise those counties to a height proportional to the data, creating what are called ‘prisms’ above those counties, which will look three dimensional, then we can also show that in stereo. So the question would be does the stereo option enhance just the three-dimensional representation?”

A classroom system for displaying stereoscopic images, including photographs, maps and other visual materials, is commonly referred to as a GeoWall. Separate GeoWall systems are being installed at KU and Haskell. The GeoWall images appear to float off the screen, allowing the viewer to see a degree of depth impossible with conventional displays.

While the stereoscopic 3-D images can make for more exciting viewing, Slocum and his colleagues are more interested in discovering if the technology improves geographic education in the classroom.

“We can show things in 3-D without stereo — there are lots of visual cues we can use to determine whether or not something is 3-D,” said Slocum. “The question is what does the stereo capability add that is not in the 3-D format? Do you gain anything by going to a stereo option?”

While on face value it may seem that stereoscopic 3-D would enhance the classroom experience, the KU researcher said that the technology could have drawbacks as well.

“It’s definitely more work at the front end for the instructor,” said Slocum. “For a lot of images, you’ve got to have special software or you’ve got to have a camera that can take 3-D. And there’s a potential for misleading people, because in order to show, say, a three-dimensional structure of elevation, what you have to do is exaggerate the surface. So it’s possible to actually mislead students.”

Slocum’s colleagues on the project include KU professors Steve Egbert, William Johnson and Dan Hirmas; KU graduate students Travis White and Alan Halfen; and Dave McDermott, a geography professor at Haskell.

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