About the ‘sandpit’ approach

What is a sandpit?

Girl playing in sandpit with a toy giraffe

Not this kind of sandpit.

“Freyja playing in the sand pit” by Shelley & Dave is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

People discussing ideas

More like this

“Creative lab”by Frerieke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Sandpits are an opportunity to come together with colleagues from different universities, backgrounds, disciplines and roles to address a complex idea or topic over a short period of time. The EPSRC website refers to sandpits as

“… intensive discussion forums where free thinking is encouraged to delve into the problems on the agenda to uncover innovative solutions.”

Not all sandpits operate in exactly the same way, but some key principles can be identified:

Principles of a sandpit approach

1. Strength in diversity. As far as possible we have put people from different universities and different job roles together. This is a feature of the sandpit approach, not a shortcoming.
2. Nobody is more important than anyone else here. There are no hierarchies in a sandpit group. It doesn’t matter how much experience you already have, the nature of your job or your seniority; everyone’s perspective/ view point is valid and no-one’s job role or experience makes their opinion worth more than anyone else’s.
3. The group own the topic, not the organisers. If your group feels the organisers have asked the wrong question or have not framed the problem in the best way possible you can respond to this in your action plan.
4. Be idealistic: The sandpit gives us the freedom to work outside the constraints of a single institution. Do not use reasons like ‘that wouldn’t be allowed at University X’ or ‘Our senior management would never agree to that’ stop you recommending an action – assume our established systems, procedures, rules, traditions and cultures can be changed.
5. Your group decide how you will work. The facilitator is there to help you keep on task in terms of time and guide your discussions if necessary. However, they are not there to lead your group, evaluate or present your ideas.
6.Your whole group own the action plan. You may not agree with other members of your group all the time, but aim to produce an action plan you can all reasonably support.

Tips on being a good group member.

1. The sandpit is why you are here. Give your time and attention to the task and to your group. Please do not check email, make phone calls or do other work during the day.
2.Be open to learning from others. People in other roles or working in other universities can have important insights.
3. Be honest, but optimistic. Use the freedom of the sandpit to find ways to overcome barriers, not to be constrained by them.
4. Respect each member of the group. Allow everyone to heard.

5. Don’t be fearful. Please do not feel intimidated by group members who may be more experienced or more senior to you.
6. Do some background reading. You don’t need to be an instant expert, but coming prepared will help you make a better contribution.


What you need to do and produce on 17th June 2019

Each group will spend the day putting together an action plan a university could put in place to better support and enable BME student success. There will introductions and a short presentation at the beginning of the day, but most of the day will be spent with your group.

You will need to produce two documents during the day:
1. An action plan for better supporting and enabling BME student success. Your group will present this work twice during the day:

  • A two minute elevator pitch on how you are getting on so far 12.15
  • A maximum 12 minute PowerPoint presentation at 14.30*

2. A time well spent canvas.* As well as noting things we could be doing more of or need to start doing, there may be things we need to stop doing as well.

*Please upload these items to the Slack site before the start of the 14.30 session. It is up to your group to decide who will do the presentations.

Other University Alliance sandpits

Programme design: Can the hare beat the tortoise? September 2017


Creative Commons Licence
About the sandpit approach by John Canning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

John Canning, 16th May 2019

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