US-IALE 2018

Hands-on Methods for Teaching Landscape Form and Processes

Garrett C. Millar, Payam Tabrizian, Anna Petrasova, Vaclav Petras, Brendan Harmon, Helena Mitasova, Ross K. Meentemeyer

Embodied Interaction

  • Embodied cognition: a link between perception & action
  • Feeling, action, & thought are functionally integral to cognition

Spatial Education

  • Spatially-focused curricula = improved student success
  • Difficult for students to visualize complex landscape processes
  • Limits students’ success in geoscience classrooms
  • Why is this?

Teaching Methods for Terrain Analysis:

in-situ surveying drawing contour maps building physical models

Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs)

  • Inflexible in use, and inadequate for users to perceive & process spatial information
  • Limit ways geospatial data can be represented
  • Solution?

Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs)

  • Offer more natural & intuitive mode of interaction
  • Allow users to cognitively grasp & physically manipulate 3D data
  • Connect intention, thought, action, & feedback
  • Help students better explore, model, visualize, & think about complex landscape processes

Tangible Landscape:

A tangible user interface powered by open source GIS

Tangible Landscape: Design & Concept

With Tangible Landscape you can hold a GIS in your hands - feeling the shape of the earth, sculpting its topography, and directing the flow of water.


Students can physically interact with digital models and simulations by:

sculpting surfaces (hands) carving surfaces (knife) placing waypoints (markers) drawing walking routes (laser) establishing viewpoints (marker) planting vegetation (felt)

Tangible Lessons

  1. Water flow: flowpath, channeling, & ponding
  2. Landforms: required participants to build & identify landforms
  3. Cut & fill: participants changes landscapes based on provided contours

Water Flow



GRASS GIS module: r.geomorphon

Cut & Fill

basic advanced

Pilot Study:

Teaching Landscape Form & Processes

Research Objectives

  • Test the effectiveness of a hands-on method for teaching spatial concepts using Tangible Landscape by:
    • examining students’ ratings of the system’s usability & user experience
    • testing students’ acquisition & transfer of knowledge


  • Three, one-week sessions
    • Contained tangible lessons for teaching fundamentals of grading, geomorphology, & hydrology
    • Session format:
      1. paper-based pretest
      2. introduction explaining the lesson content
      3. tangible lessons
      4. paper-based posttest
    • Particpants:
      • 16 graduate students from a Landform, Grading, & Site Systems course

Interaction, feedback, & example solutions

Materials & Scoring

  • Topographic Map Assessment (TMA) (Newcombe et al., 2015)
    • Assessed students’ acquisition & transfer of spatial skills
  • Tangible Lesson Assessments
    • Measured student’s knowledge specific to tangible lesson content (landforms, cut & fill)
  • User Experience Survey
    • Examined how students perceived and interacted with Tangible Landscape, & how they collaborated to solve a problem


Knowledge Building: Tangible Lessons

Individual Scores Mean Scores


Knowledge Building: TMA

Individual Scores Mean Scores


User Experience

  • All constructs pass the neutral value of 4 = students rated the system positively
  • Most advantageous aspects of Tangible Landscape?
    • ability to explore various solutions for the given problems (e.g., water flow, landforms, cut and fill)
    • physical objects allowed students to change parameters (e.g., location of solution points) very quickly
    • projected visual feedback helped them better understand the effects of changing those parameters


  • Preliminary evidence for Tangible Landscape supporting improved user experience and marginal, task-specific knowledge building
  • Knowledge building:
    • Ability to directly feel, grasp, and manipulate the various tangible materials
  • User Experience:
    • Students can try, see and feel, and directly experience multiple variations of a given solution


Garrett C. Millar

PhD Student
Geospatial Analytics

Payam Tabrizian

PhD Student
College of Design

Anna Petrasova

Postdoctoral Scholar
Center for Geospatial Analytics

Vaclav Petras

PhD Candidate
Geospatial Analytics

Brendan Harmon

Assistant Professor
Landscape Architecture
Louisiana State University

Helena Mitasova

Associate Director of Geovisualization
Center for Geospatial Analytics

Ross Meentemeyer

Center for Geospatial Analytics

Full Paper

Full Paper: Tangible Landscape: A Hands-on Method for Teaching Terrain Analysis Millar G.C., Tabrizian P., Petrasova A., Petras V., Harmon B., Mitasova H., Meentemeyer R.K. ACM SIGCHI. 2018.


We would like to thank Carla Delcambre of the Landscape Architecture department at North Carolina State University for working with us to implement this study in her course. We also thank the Landscape Architecture graduate students for participating in the study.

Come see Tangible Landscape for yourself!
(Tonight's poster social)


Thank you!

Open Source

Tangible Landscape plugin for GRASS GIS

GRASS GIS module for importing data from Kinect v2

Tangible Landscape repository on Open Science Framework