Sandbox Collaborative leads SNHU’s ed-tech innovation

A year in, the analytical arm foresees how engineering programs could be done differently


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SNHU President Paul LeBlanc (center) chats in Sandbox Collaborative's space that encourages innovative thinking.

Sandbox Collaborative’s mission is intertwined with the purpose of its open, creative office space: to break down boundaries and encourage innovative new ideas. 

“We really just want to create a warm environment for our faculty and staff to come in and work through innovative ideas with our teams, explains Lisa Bonacci, engagement manager at Sandbox Collaborative. We wanted it to be a place where people can come in and take risks and be OK with trying new things.” 

Near the front entrance, there are two whiteboard tables made up of four separate tabletops with wheels, encouraging movement. Along the edges are private booths with a TV hookup to display one laptop screen to the group. Around the corner is stadium-style seating with cushions for presentations. Each wall is covered with whiteboard paint. A projector in one corner also works as an interactive smart board. 

“When people come to this space it’s more to get into a mindset, says Executive Director Michelle Weise, Ph.D. One of my favorite quotes is an advisor walking in and saying ‘I think my brain just opened up here.’”

Michelle Weise, Ph.D., is executive director of the Sandbox Collaborative.

When building the space, SNHU looked to Google Ventures and other firms leveraging design thinking. Now, local businesses and organizations have asked to use the space or see the layout before building their own.

“We use all of these methods to get people into the mindset of thinking about approaching a problem differently, says Weise. Most of the time, when people come to us, they’ve already started moving to a solution space, but when we drill down, we realize they’re answering the wrong question. They haven’t spent enough time on the original question they meant to solve.

Last year, then-Governor Maggie Hassan’s STEM Task Force gathered to discuss the need for a STEM academy. One woman insisted it should be a high school course. When a member of Sandbox Collaborative suggested a virtual learning model, the woman agreed that could work as well.

When we started poking into their solutions, we realized all of these parameters they had built up around their solution were coming from their own experiences,” says Weise. They were building perimeters they didn’t need to.” 

Understanding data 

“This physical space represents one-sixth of what we do for the university,” says Weise. Sandbox Collaborative serves as the internal consultancy and researcher on education technology for SNHU. “We’re always scanning over the horizon for innovations that will help us think about new and alternative business models for the future. At the same time, while we’re scanning, if we see a product we think would be immediately useful for our stakeholders, we introduce them to that product. We are the channel for all education technology vendors approaching the university.” 

With the announcement in late March that SNHU is partnering with Rethink Education to invest in ed-tech startups, Sandbox Collaborative will be involved in the final process to vet ed-tech organizations as well as continue to learn about advancements in the ed-tech field.

“We’ve produced about 50 different reports for the university just in the last year,” says Weise, who is now uploading podcasts, blogs, briefs and reports on Sandbox Collaboratives website. “These are things most institutions of higher education are thinking about and there’s no need it has to be proprietary to us. This is where we’ve developed an ethos of sharing and our website is devoted to that. While we’ve been in the research process, thinking about engineering, we’ve met so many experts in the field. So now we’ve taken them and interviewed each of them individually and created podcasts out of them, because we think the world should know about their thinking and the way they approach these problems.” 

College of Engineering

Since SNHU agreed to teach out Daniel Webster’s students, it’s also added some of Daniel Webster’s programs that SNHU did not previously offer, such as engineering. For the next two years, SNHU will be teaching the curriculum according to Daniel Webster’s current pathway, but the school is envisioning a whole new curriculum when it unveils its newly built engineering building in 2020, says Weise.

Dartmouth and Smith College are blurring the boundaries when it comes to learning math skills for engineering students. Instead of separate disciplines, students learn through solving a problem and using mathematical equations in that setting. 

“The current model doesn’t work,” explains Weise. “The current model is a weed out approach and we’re trying to figure out how to channel people in and be succesful.” 

One way SNHU is looking to draw in students is by building a Challenger Center on campus, with life-like manned missions to the moon and Mars. SNHU is currently in talks with the Challenger Center Foundation.

“It’s a really powerful experience,” says Weise, of the simulator. “A lot of school districts bring their kids to these programs and more of these have been cropping up on campuses because campuses have realized if these students are having these powerful, life changing experiences and they associate with the campus, they realize there’s possibility there.” 

Having engineering students run the center can also remind them of the magic of the experience and encourage them to push on.

“If we have a Challenger Center embedded with the College of Engineering, when our students go through this notoriously difficult program, where the retention is at a 50 percent rate, if theyr’e also mentoring with kids in a Challenger Center experience, if they see their eyes light up, it might help them relive why they’re pursuing this kind of work. That is tied to something bigger in terms of solving problems.”

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