A Seat at the Table(s): Designing the Space of NOVA Lab

At the dawn of Innovation Lab, in its original, 2016-17 iteration known as Design Lab, room 121 looked like every other high school class this side of the Atlantic: white cement walls, rigid tan desks, off-white tile floors, a stained whiteboard, and a 2×6 excuse for a window. A fine space for inspiring minds.

Of course, this design was intentional on the system’s part–classrooms were meant to communicate efficiency and compliance, which any system tied to efficiencies of scale must demand. And, by extension, the classrooms were also designed to mirror the mundane office jobs and factory jobs that would, by and large, be the future for many students.

Such a space, however, was inimical to the very vision and mission of Design Lab/NOVA Lab. (see image at right)

And so, in 2016, for our first ever design sprint, students engaged in a full-on, empathy driven, design-thinking project to redesign the classroom itself.

While you certainly can read about the process in depth at the above linked post, the interpretation of that work by two of this year’s NOVA Lab Frequent Fliers (it’s their second year here) offers a perspective that is worth your time:

“The initial design challenge we developed was succinct: “How might we design a space that biases learners towards thinking and doing?” With this in mind, the class took on the task of prototyping a new space for future Nova Lab designers. This process started off with people watching. The students observed their peers in other classrooms and noted where problems arose. Empathy.

Why is empathy important? It loops back to the Nova Lab motto: “Why are things the way they are? How can we make them better?”

The prototype the 2016–2017 Design Lab students developed was centered on collaboration and creativity–the engines at the heart of not only NOVA Lab but also the English classes our teacher, Mr. Heidt, holds in this classroom. So the design had to be flexible, adaptable, and agile enough to accomodate classes To make a difference, students first needed to understand the issue. What are traditional classrooms doing to students that a flexible Nova Lab classroom would help instead of hurt? (See first image in gallery below)

While a design did exist, coming out of the 2016 design sprint (see pictures above), the funding to redesign the classroom in total did not. And so for the better part of 5 years, with the exception of a few small prototypes, the question that the 2016 iteration of the class asked had not yet been totally answered.

But in the summer of 2022, the district provided funding and Mr. Heidt and his 2021–2022 NOVA Lab classes made some crucial purchases based upon the original 2016–2017 class designs. (Concept rendering below)

As designers and design researchers, however, our job was not done merely because we’d seen the vision realized. We are now involved in getting user feedback and will be responding to it throughout the year. Below are some sample responses to students’ first impressions as they walked into room 121 on the very first day of the 2022–2023.

“Describe your view of the typical HS classroom:

  • “Other classrooms are static and out of date”
  • “Students sit in the same place and stare at the same thing as everyone else in normal classrooms”
  • “Classrooms feel institutionalized and don’t promote creativity”
  • Normal classrooms are boring and cramped…some students even compare an average classroom to a jail”
  • Plain
  • Rigid

What did students have to say after new furniture came into the classroom?

  • “This room is bright and breathable”
  • “I feel free”
  • “Vibrant and exciting”
  • “Comfortable”
  • “Welcoming”
  • “Surprising but relaxing”
  • “Untraditional”

The feedback to the new furniture has been unmistakably positive, and promising for the future generations of NOVA Lab and whatever other classes might find themselves here. Freedom, excitement, adaptability, and a fresh environment will inspire NOVA Lab ambassadors to change the world, one good thing at a time.

Published by Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.

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