Do Good Things Newsletter: The Fast and the Furriest

From Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist

Perhaps the hardest thing in leading project-based work is knowing when to help students who are stuck, struggling, and feeling as if the world is collapsing on their project. While this is, at least according to Austin Kleon’s borrowed graphic, seemingly inevitable, and while my own experience in leading three years worth of NOVA Lab classes would bear out the truth of this observation, it doesn’t obviate the need to know when and how to help students see their way to completing a project that is, if not exactly what they’d hoped for, at least better than abandoning their work altogether.

Regardless of the student or the project, however, there are several key skills I practice to help me know when and how to help students in the “Dark Night of the Soul.” First and foremost is empathetic listening. I don’t solve the problem for the student. That would be contrary to the nature of the class and would erase an immense learning opportunity. Instead, I listen, ask questions, and offer resources. Second, I pull out my years of experience and my network of educators and former students and try to connect the project leaders with someone who might help them solve the issues holding up their project. Sometimes…in the best of times…these things happen together, immediately, and the project’s inverse arc and the student’s affect suddenly take on a positive attitude.

Such is the case with Brianna T.’s project, the Fast and Furriest 5K run .

Brianna is a 10th grader who refocused an original project two months ago to hosting a 5K fun run to help raise money for our local SPCA. She had never hosted a 5K before, but she loves animals and is purpose driven to help animals live better lives. However, for about a month, Brianna was having trouble getting traction with her project. Yes she made some fliers and, yes, she had many procedural hoops to jump through to get the site and permission, but the project wasn’t moving that quickly and the date, May 14 was coming at her like a greyhound after a rabbit (see what I did there?).

Jordan Deane of Cutloose Studios

And then we went to Fluxspace and met our guest speakers, Jordan Deane and Emily Rodenbaugh of Cutloose Studios. Barely 10 minutes into Jordan’s presentation, as he spoke about his failures and successes in his life’s journey, it was clear that Jordan and Emily might be able to offer a lot of help to Brianna. And so, after their presentation, and after Brianna’s presentation I urged Brianna to go speak to them. In just 5 minutes, and then another 5 as they listened to Brianna present the story of her project, Brianna had a solid line of communication planned out with Emily and Jordan. And within a few days, Emily and Brianna were e-mailing and texting back and forth, planning for a successful run.

The Fast and The Furriest is really coming together now. Brianna has plenty of volunteers, many of them from our NOVA Lab Community. She has learned the value of asking for help and seeking out experts/mentors to assist when her own knowledge and skill set need bolstering. Most importantly, and this is something she mentioned in a quick reflection, she has realized the importance of building a team to assist in planning events like this…or really in any large undertaking.

For those who are close by, the Fast and Furriest run is May 14th at Perkiomen Valley Middle School West. A $20 donation gets you a ticket. Proceeds go to the Montgomery County SPCA. The flier below has a QR code to get you to the Eventbrite to purchase your ticket. You can also click here.

Do Good Things Spotlight: “Cleanliness is Next to Goodliness”

In the three years I’ve run NOVA Lab, it has evolved, slowly but surely, into a class that is evermore like what I hoped it would be: A class that uses human-centered design to engage students in self-determined, purposeful learning that is meaningful for the students as individuals and consequential for larger communities as well. However, of the almost 100 projects that have grown out of our experiences in class, only a handful were ever focused on product design, and of those, only one has been an entirely original, self-created prototype has ever made it past the initial iteration phase: The NOVA Nubs Brush Cleaner.

NOVA Nubs was born directly out of NOVA Lab’s central focus on human-centered design. Two friends, Maya and Kylie, did some needs finding and identified that cleaning paint brushes in our art rooms was not only time consuming, it was inefficient and, because it involved pressing the brushes into the sink bottom and sides, it was damaging the brushes.

Recognizing an opportunity, Maya and Kylie worked quickly to develop sketches and background information for their design. Creating a low-fi, working prototype out of wood, spar-urethane, strips of pressed steel, and silicon bristles, the NOVA Nubs team was able to test their design over the course of one week in our art classes.

The results were almost unanimous. The bristles side of the prototype was far more useful than the red nubs. As well, the results of their interviews, post-use, revealed that the bristles were easier to use, less messy, and worked better than slapping the brush around in a small container of water, beating it on the sink floor, or otherwise trying to get the paint out of the bristles.

Moving forward, the team has taken their lessons from the user interviews and are currently working on a second prototype. This prototype will be covered in the clear / white bristles and will have a more advanced/sturdier support system.

On April 11, the team had the opportunity to present their latest version to a panel of designers, professors, and classmates at NOVA Nubs garnered excellent feedback from the 6 judges, even finding support for taking the project a bit further and marketing it.

For two young women to run their own design project, from problem finding, empathy building, researching, iterating, prototyping, and testing, to gathering user feedback, budgeting, and developing manufacturing plans…? That’s amazing. And for them to do this while graduating, managing jobs, and applying to college? Well…I think that’s why this class exists.

But then, it’s not really about the product. It’s about the process. Whether NOVA Nubs sees a birth in the future or whether it stays here to help our own artists and art teachers is really immaterial. What matters is that these students entered a “space for inspiration, aspiration, respiration, and creation” and used their time to guide a product from inception to realization creating an experience that will have a lasting impact on them.

This team, these students, these classes . . . they’ve all proven the concept of the class in a way I’d waited for these past two truncated years. That I can be part of the space to which these students bring their light, their heart, and their energy is a privilege–one I hope to experience for the rest of my career.

Fluxspace 2.0: The Return

by Charlotte Bentley

Last Monday, April 4th, the NOVA Lab classes ventured beyond the walls of room 121 to visit Fluxspace, a collaborative learning space located in Norristown. For most of the group, it was our second time at Fluxspace, as we had gone back in November of 2021; during that trip, we gave presentations on design sprints we had completed in a matter of weeks. This time, the students were tasked with presenting the projects that we have been working on for months. Writing in a blog post following the field trip, Ava Bellino described how this visit was “more real” because the presentation “mattered so much more this time around.” 

Other students wrote how the wonder of being in Fluxspace, designed for innovation and creation, had worn off since the first trip. However, for most this was not a concern: the space was familiar and comfortable now, especially with such a daunting task approaching. 

Jordan Dean of CutLoose Studio and Wellness Inspiring our HS Innovators and Entrepreneurs

Charging the room with the innovative spirit was guest speaker Jordan Deane, a graduate of Perkiomen Valley who started his own business, a fitness studio called Cut Loose, with his fiancee, Emily. Charismatic and honest, Jordan quickly earned the admiration of his audience of NOVA Lab students. Following his presentation, the couple offered personal advice to help students build up their own brands and advertise on social media. Later, both Jordan and Emily would serve as panelists during presentations, providing feedback that student Casey Sitron described as “invigorating.”

Then came the presentations. Split between the central screen and a smaller one in the Makerspace, students took the plunge to illustrate to the panelists the months worth of work that had gone into their projects. Anxiety was high, but many were comforted by the sense that their presentation skills had improved since their first visit. The passion in every presenter’s voice was clear, as was the pride in Mr. Heidt’s face as he observed quietly and took copious amounts of pictures.

St. Joseph’s University Prof. James Partner providing feedback on student presentation

Perhaps the single most valuable moment from the entire trip came not during the presentations, but after. The panelists offered feedback to each presenter, in the form of questions and advice regarding the project. Across nearly every blog post written by a NOVA Lab student following the field trip, feedback was mentioned as one of the greatest benefits of visiting Fluxspace. Suggesting improvements and providing validation and new ideas, the panelists gave students a fresh perspective and ways to move forward heading into the spring. 

Matt Schafer commented on the constructive nature of the feedback he received, describing how while his presentation went well, “what was greater was the connections that we made.” Indeed, as presentations finished and students gathered in front of the central screen, we were able to watch the final speakers together. After only hearing and catching glimpses of our classmates’ projects, watching them all unfold in a space as special as Fluxspace was inspiring

Our day spent at Fluxspace was a grounding, yet refreshing experience for the two classes. After months of working on our deeply personal pursuits, being able to finally share them refocused us on the message behind not only our own projects, but Mr. Heidt’s NOVA Lab as a whole: that we all have the potential to do good things

Do Good Things Spotlight: Project Zero — From Garbage to Good Things

In the few years I’ve been co-creating, growing, and evolving NOVA lab, I’ve had at least 65 different projects. And while the process of creation in this class is more important than the actual project outcomes themselves, it’s not correct to say that projects don’t really matter in the end. They do. No student would take the class if they didn’t feel they could make a dent, a ding, a difference in the world, as daunting as that may be.

But each year, through perseverance, vision, and a good deal of luck, at least three teams strike gold and create projects that take off beyond expectations and, almost from the get go, “do good things” in the world.

In 2020, our first year, the audacity and scope of the projects (see * below) astounded me enough to move us to speak at Educon, the nationally known education convention hosted by the students (and staff) of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy

And this past Thursday evening, March 28, 2022, my astonishment in this year’s projects continued as I had the opportunity to watch the Project Zero team of four high school seniors present their pitch to our school district’s Safety and Operations committee.

Project Zero is dedicated to bringing composting of biodegradable waste to our HS. The project was born out of a design sprint offered by a team of Drexel University professors at our first trip to the Fluxspace Innovation Accelerator. A team of seniors, two from each section of this year’s NOVA Lab classes, brainstormed a project to help reduce greenhouse gasses and climate change by promoting composting through the separation of biodegradable waste from refuse bound for landfills.

Through months of research, phone calls, meetings with the administration and the Back to Earth Composting Crew, setbacks, and presentations, this team has, from the sound of the responses at Thursday’s meeting, convinced the district to pilot biodegradable waste composting at our high school.

And while the team would certainly concur that the path to this level of success was more tedious and “meeting filled” than they ever could have imagined, they’ve also learned important lessons about civic responsibility, bureaucracies, and time management.

There are many other good things taking place in NOVA Lab this year. From Support Dogs to prototypes of brush washing stations for our art department, the variety and depth of the projects is exhilarating. But what is common to all these projects is also uncommon to the work students do in most every other class, for this work is purpose-driven; it is, in the words of Professor Bill Damon, “meaningful for the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”

And that…? That is a Good Thing for now, and a Good Thing for our future.

*Year One Projects:

Make it 100, a drive to get 100% of eligible seniors registered to vote by April 20

Living Now, a lifestyle brand that sought to bring the joy of the outdoors to teens trapped behind screens, and deliver $1000 to the Appalachian Trails Fund.

Observo, a quest to build and prototype a cheap, homemade Dobsonian Reflector telescope.

Backyard Beans: “A Small, Good Thing”

The last newsletter introduced us to the good that comes from planning (and growing) towns and cities at a human scale. Towns thus planned allowed neighborhood businesses to flourish. Barber shops, mercantiles, restaurants, bars, doctors…all these small businesses, vital to the health and well-being of citizens were also vital to the life of the town itself. That last point bears repeating: Towns have a life. People and their flow into, within, and out of local businesses and institutions are the lifeblood of towns.

While the rise of a culture centered on the automobile and the movement of businesses to shopping centers and malls largely sucked the life blood out of American mainstreets in post-WWII America, the attempts to revitalize the sense of community and reclaim the self-sufficiency of of those towns has existed for almost as long.

One business well suited to brewing the kind of interactions which bring life to towns are local coffee shops. Along with micro-breweries, local coffee shops are as much gathering spaces as they are purveyors of gastronomic wares. In the parlance of urban/town planning, such business provide “Third Spaces.” Neither home nor work, they are vitally interstitial, providing areas for respite, sustenance, and social interaction–key characteristics for thriving communities.

When a town has one or more of these businesses operating at a profit, the buzz of life they raise for the community is, simply put, “A Good Thing.” In my own town of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, our homegrown coffee shop “Backyard Beans” is a great example.

Founded by Matt and Laura Adams in the backyard of their Lansdale twin, Backyard Beans has helped revitalize the mainstreet of Lansdale as well as that of Ambler, a sister town a few miles to the east. Backyard Beans’ original configuration included a small cafe in the front and a roastery in the back room, visible through large glass windows behind the counter. But the quality of their product and their commitment to the community and their role in its revitalization quickly forced them to expand the shop.

The Roastery is now offsite, a few miles away, but still in Lansdale. More seating and work spaces fill the old roastery room. They also added a kitchen that makes breakfast and lunch sandwiches from scratch, and just this year, they have started a bakery onsite producing sourdough based pastries as well as other baked goods.

Owners Matt and Laura Adams understand that there is far more to running a business in a town like Lansdale than making a profit. Their commitment to the community resides in their name–“Backyard Beans” being a reference to the place (their backyard in Lansdale) where they first started roasting their own beans.

But their commitment is found in more than their nomenclature. They are committed to playing a large role in revitalizing Lansdale’s mainstreet. And so, not only do they make good coffee and serve good food, they are doing good things, too. From “Make a difference Mondays, to creating work for local residents, to online fundraisers and goods donations, Backyard Beans has devoted itself to doing good in the community.

Of course, they are not alone in this philanthropy. Most all small businesses in small-town America recognize the debt they owe their locales. But Backyard Beans’ fits that “third space” niche I write about above that makes the town alive. Many in Lansdale and beyond have made Backyard Beans a home-away-from-home. Businesspeople can find space and time to work, college students have ample area to study in groups, and neighbors and families visit regularly to spend time catching up with each other.

I know that Backyard Beans is not unusual in the role they play. All towns that are undergoing revitalization have created the economic opportunities for businesses like Backyard Beans to flourish. What is unusual is the dedication and focus Matt and Laura Adams have to the quality of their product. In 2018 they were named one of the two best coffee shops in Pennsylvania by Food and Wine magazine, and their coffees are served in restaurants across the region.

With such a dedication to quality in the food they make and the coffee they roast, and a focus on building stronger communities, Backyard Beans is the definition of a small (but growing), good thing.