Bentley University Creates a Social Space for Tech

Its CIS Sandbox is designed for the future of learning.

AS FAR AS MARK FRYDENBERG IS CONCERNED, learning new technology should be a shared, not solitary, experience. That belief inspired Frydenberg to spearhead the creation of the computer information systems department’s Learning & Technology Sandbox (or “CIS Sandbox”) at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 2011.

The CIS Sandbox replaced the school’s old computer lab, a traditional space with 40 computer stations, gray carpeting, gray furniture, and no windows. “When I was asked to take over the lab in 2010, I was reluctant because it wasn’t a place where I wanted to spend my time,” says Frydenberg. “But then I started thinking about what the future of computer learning could be.” The university funded a complete renovation, giving the room a more inviting color scheme and replacing the computer stations with six U-shaped tables with monitors for group work, wall-mounted display monitors, and soft chairs for lounging.

In 2017, he says, students have their own laptops, so they no longer need a place to connect to the internet or write papers. Instead, they need spaces where they can experiment with new technologies. “That’s why we call it the Sandbox,” Frydenberg explains. “I wanted a name that was more playful and that encouraged experimentation.”

The Sandbox serves Bentley’s community in a variety of ways:

It provides IT tutoring. The lab employs 20 to 25 undergraduates and graduate students as tutors to help support students enrolled in the university’s IT courses. Tutors must be majors, minors, or graduate students in a CIS program. In addition to providing face-to-face tutoring, these students also regularly create online tutorial videos on frequently asked questions. “We tell faculty to let their students know about these videos,” says Frydenberg. “We have some students come in to ask for a particular tutor they saw online. It’s a great way to introduce ourselves to those who haven’t been here yet.”

Sandbox tutors also provide faculty with online reports about questions students ask most. Once faculty see what questions their students are asking, they can gauge whether they should spend more class time on a particular topic. That feedback, says Frydenberg, helps ensure that the Sandbox’s activities are closely linked to what students are learning in the classroom.

It exposes students to new tech. The Sandbox draws on an annual budget of US$5,000 to purchase the latest software and tech gadgets. These have included new Android tablets; Google Glass; a wireless beacon that can push information to smartphones; and a Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a deck of cards. Students can come to the Sandbox to see what the new tech can do or create new programming that takes advantage of its features.

Students also can submit requests for the Sandbox to purchase specific devices. Last year, for example, a student wanted to program an application for the MYO armband, a device that can detect movement in the arm of the wearer. “So we bought one,” says Frydenberg. “The armband comes with a programming interface, so the student wrote code that would allow him to control his music on his smartphone by moving his arm.”
Capital improvements for the Sandbox, such as new display monitors or furniture, are purchased by the campus Academic Technology Center.

It hosts speakers, workshops, and other programming. In November, for example, the Sandbox brought in a guest speaker to talk about self-driving cars. The speaker brought two vehicles from Tesla to show students the technology in action.

Many programs at the Sandbox are student-driven—something that Frydenberg is particularly proud of. For instance, students on staff help maintain the Sandbox’s website, and each student must post something to the lab’s blog at least once a semester. In addition, two years ago, tutors decided to develop a review session to help first-year students prepare for their final exam in the school’s mandatory introduction to technology course. The tutors now deliver this session each semester in person and stream it online, promoting it to first years via social media. “Faculty had no part of this,” says Frydenberg.

The Sandbox’s newest offering is a session at the start of each semester to help first-year students prepare their computers for the same introductory course. Staff members work with students in groups of six for 90 minutes each, helping them install necessary software on their laptops and getting them accustomed to using it. Last year, the staff delivered this session to more than 700 students in about five days.

It provides space to study and socialize. Students view the Sandbox much like a library, where they can study, work on projects, meet with faculty, or simply hang out between classes. “Some people live in here,” Frydenberg says, laughing. “But that’s good, because it shows they feel welcome, that there’s a place where they feel comfortable and a part of what we’re doing.”

When Frydenberg first started this project in 2010, he remembers asking the admissions office why the computer lab wasn’t on the campus tour given to prospective students. “I was told that every school has a computer lab, so no one’s going to come to Bentley because of that space,” he says.

Today, the admissions office hasn’t just put the Sandbox on the tour. It also recently asked Frydenberg if his staff could deliver a 90-minute interactive program to 30 prospective students. During that session, staff taught participants to create and upload a simple web page about the school. “Now, those students can pull that site up on their phones and show it to people who ask what they did at Bentley,” he says.

Each semester, more than 3,000 students spend time at the Sandbox, which Frydenberg views as a sign of its value to the Bentley community. “Our mission at the Sandbox is to create a space where students can explore technology in a social way,” he says. “Giving them the ability to play with the next up-and-coming technological tools or program an app—it’s a pretty powerful thing.”