Starting this semester, a new educational program will be available to all 11,000 of MIT’s students. Called the Sandbox Innovation Fund Program (“Sandbox” for short), the program will provide meaningful seed funding of up to $25,000 for student-initiated ideas, mentoring from within MIT and from a broad network of committed partners, and tailored educational experiences. The objective of Sandbox is to help students to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be successful innovators and entrepreneurs. It is about developing people, not ideas. However, the learning will be in the context of advancing innovative ideas or projects of the students’ own creation – ones that serve important needs in the world.
The students and alumni from the five MIT Schools represent an incredible force for innovation in the world. This is well reflected in our history and recounted in multiple studies, including one by Professors Ed Roberts and Fiona Murray, and their student, Daniel Kim that was released in December. MIT’s legacy is amazing, but even more exciting, and more important, is what our students and alumni will do in the future, and how we as faculty can better prepare them to do it.
As faculty we take on multiple roles to support our students: we teach, we mentor, we encourage, we collaborate, we support, we provide resources and opportunities, we connect students with others, and we hope occasionally to be a source of inspiration or the spark for a new idea. And sometimes we know enough to just get out of the way and let our students do remarkable things on their own – where they are often a source of inspiration for us.
Keeping pace with student needs and expectations has always been challenging at MIT. These days, one key area of change – both within and beyond MIT – is the nature, pace, and process of innovation. We live in a world with the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, a biotech revolution, engineering at the nanoscale, and an explosion of data and information. These advances present unprecedented opportunities for our students. Likewise, the world increasingly needs MIT’s unique brand of deep scientific and technological innovation to address grand challenges in areas such as health, energy, environment, poverty, and education. It is important to think about how we can better prepare our students for the world they’re going to land in when they leave MIT.
Responding to a need
A significant number of our students are on a path to becoming innovators and entrepreneurs while at MIT, and some are headed that way even before they get here. For example, over 1,000 students participated in the MIT $100K competition last year. Many more are involved in UROP, SuperUROP, club activities, dorm room projects, D-Lab, and other efforts to make and create things.
Large company or small, for-profit or non-profit, academia, industry, government, or entrepreneur – the ability to identify a need, create and communicate an innovative solution, and build a team that produces a positive impact are things we ought to better prepare our students to do, especially as the data indicate they are doing it already.
Further, Institute-wide efforts to consider innovation and the future of education contain ample evidence of these changes in our students and those that are occurring more broadly in the world. These very thoughtful reports also offer many exciting ideas and plans for improving what we do at MIT to better enable our students to have an impact. The new Sandbox program has emerged from these and other discussions.
We have heard from our students that they want more opportunities, resources, and spaces to pursue innovative student-initiated ideas. They would like more integrated curricular programming around entrepreneurship. (The growth of the excellent programs at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, StartMIT, and a proposal for a new minor in entrepreneurship and innovation are also responses to this need.) Our students would like help navigating the rich ecosystem within MIT as well as the network outside MIT.
As faculty we want to ensure students have appropriate educational foundations, effective independent mentoring (especially when they are interacting with people who may have a financial interest in their ideas), and guidance on conflicts of interest that increasingly involve other students, faculty, or non-MIT entities. We would also like to help them achieve an appropriate meta-curricular balance (e.g., not adding three new things to their plate if they are struggling in freshman physics). Finally, we would like to ensure that external partners in our educational enterprise interact with our students in a way that is consistent with our mission, culture, values, and policies. Putting education and community-building first, Sandbox was designed, and will operate, with all of these considerations in mind.
How Sandbox works
Engaging with Sandbox will be easy for students.
What’s new and different about Sandbox?
MIT has one of the most powerful and expansive innovation networks in the world. We are fortunate to have so many programs and resources, but that also means when we launch a new program we have to be concrete about what sets it apart. In the case of Sandbox, it is not one feature, but a collection of characteristics. It is:
Like the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, Sandbox is made possible through a partnership with people and organizations who are committed to its educational objectives and are willing to support it with time, mentoring, and funding. Our partners bring a wealth of knowledge and a network of connections and opportunities that we could not hope to replicate solely with MIT personnel.
How you can help