So I Started a Newsletter

Yeah, I know it’s not original, it might not even be something that’s sustainable for me, though I can get help from the members of NOVA Lab, I’m sure. (We’re all about encouraging and helping each other.)

Dubbed the “Do Good Things” Newsletter, I was inspired by the confluence of my most recent blog post and Lego.

It feels good to write this. I’m looking forward to this every week.

Subscribe to for more learning goodness throughout the week, month, and year.

From Great to Good

I was reading today in the Daily Stoic about what mattered to Marcus Aurelius…what things for him were marks of success:  good character and acting for the common Good.

My musings on Marcus got me to thinking about how I might rebrand a bit in NOVA Lab  

For the past two years, I’ve issued a daily call to my NOVA Lab students to “go do great things.”  But in thinking over what Marcus Aurelius said, I am wondering if “do great things” is too much license.  Great things might be accomplished in many ways, and those ends might justify means I wouldn’t want to justify.  

So I thought about “Do Good Things.” 

I love the ambiguity there.  At first, it seems, like the statement of an underachiever, like “good enough.”  What entrepreneur would consider only ever being “good.” “I make good soup.”  “I make good apps.” 

No, we live in an age of superlatives, and maybe we can thank PT Barnum for that, or the advantage of America’s ascension to dominance in the 20th century.   Whatever it is, it seems our want to be the best, the biggest, the greatest.   And I wonder if in doing that we’ve missed the fact that great rests upon good.  If the foundation isn’t good, if the core motive, the root cause is not “good,” then great becomes a facade, a label, a mere entreaty without moral intention.  

So the rebranding, strange as it may seem, is to step back and step down in order to step up. I want to tell my students to do “good things.” Because, in the end, that’s actually what I want.  That’s the goal of Social Impact design.  And we can do that, and know that, and measure that, I think, if we at least agree on moral standards of what it means to “do good.”

Some might look to this with cynicism,  perhaps even a bit of derision, “Who is he to believe that by doing good things he could change the world.”  I’ll take that challenge.  I want to live knowing I tried to do all I could to make the world a better place rather than simply bettering my own place in the world.

Lightning in a Bottle…Twice: The Joy of Learning

A week shy of two years ago, students in the first iteration of my inNOVAtion Lab class traveled to Fluxspace, an educational innovation space attached to the headquarters of Corbett Inc in Norristown, PA. The trip, our second in as many months in the prepandemic fall of 2019 (after a trip to the BPHL Innovation Festival), was also the second of two of the greatest events in students’ academic careers, at least as self-reported by the students in attendance at both events.

As one of the few adults who attended these two trips, as their teacher in the inaugural year of of inNOVAtion Lab, as a teacher of 26 years at the time, I agree.

In 26 years I’d had my share of classes that blew me away. But for the most part, that astonishment was confined to the classroom, which is a safe and limited(ing) space. How students fared once they left? Once they stopped playing by the rules of my classroom (however loose I may have set those rules) and moved on? Like most teachers, I rarely knew.

But our first trip to Fluxspace changed that. It became a benchmark for us. It was the place where we wanted to return, the place where some of my students would go on to intern and bring their talents and insights to others.

It was also the place we would not get to return to for two years. COVID made sure of that.

Until yesterday.

Our return to Fluxspace had been something I’d designed for over two months. All the work of the entire first marking period was chosen to prepare students with the skills to succeed and the knowledge to reflect upon. I was intentional in my choices (see * at bottom), and my intentions were, at least in part, to see if it would be possible to capture lighting in a bottle twice.

This, the third cohort of NOVA Lab, made that magical task a reality.

On November 12, 2021, after almost exactly two years, my 35 NOVA Lab students returned to Fluxspace. Primed for a presentation from Drexel University and an afternoon of presentations to panels of parents, professors, and professionals, these students had the kind of nervous energy that any coach wants in his players before a big game.

And what a big game we had.

Chuck Sacco, Liz Herzog, and Barrie Litzky from The Charles Close School of Entrepreneurship kicked off our morning with an informative and interactive look at the Entrepreneurial Mindset. After background information on the traits, skills, and characteristics of the mindset, student teams had 20 minutes to come up with an innovation with social impact.

The two months of background students had in innovation and design thinking proved valuable as teams of designers who’d never worked together before created diverse and approachable solutions to a host of problems from gentrification to unemployment to over-incarceration.

Wait… twenty minutes to solve the world’s problems? Not going to happen, and the students know this. But they also know that they’re the generation next in line, and they won’t miss the opportunities we’ve missed. One team even approached me after the presentations to ask if they could work together to continue their project addressing food deserts.

And while those moments were outstanding, what really stood out was the way the students shifted into their roles as design teams in the afternoon to present their designed solutions to the National Design Challenge for 2021.

Split into two groups of six teams each with ten minutes for presentations and feedback, these students handled the task before them, to tell the story of their client and their solution, just like design students . I’ve seen design critiques before. My students were part of college design student mid-crits at Philadelphia University in 2012. And that is how I set up these presentations. With only twelve days on-task for this challenge and maybe 8 hours of class time, NOVA Lab students floored their panels with their empathy, research, creativity and professionalism. What’s more, they exhibited something I rarely see in even my own English classes–they brought heart and energy to these tasks. They collaborated like mad, relied on each other, and communicated an empathy for their clients that is missing from most self-absorbed, individual (and even group) work that is done in the classroom.

I don’t need to have 28 years in the classroom to know that when students are intrinsically motivated, the learning is deeper, more relevant, and “sticky.” As I noted in my first post about Fluxspace in 2019, this is the kind of experience that shifts the mind utterly, that reveals something we’ve hidden from students behind tests, and rules, and most of all, grades. . . .

This is the Joy of Learning embodied.

*Below is the basic outline for how we worked through our first marking period. All the work listed has specific timelines and is based on key concepts at the heart of Innovation and Design Thinking for Social Impact.

Community and Culture building, Creativity and Communication skills, Innovator’s DNA and the Adaptable Mind, Design Thinking, and, finally, the National Design Challenge.

Design Build Challenge: Weltanschauung–Design as World View

“We teach to ensure the world can be better than we found it.”

Were I to found a school for those who sought to be teachers, this would be a mantra. And yes, it is aspirational, but nations who have no aspirations, or who have lost them due to their own selfish desires…who have no foresight or care for the damage they inflict today? These nations will perish, and cause others to perish with them.

We can be better than this. Almost a decade ago I gave a presentation at the Industrial Designer’s Society of America called, “S.T.E.A.M. Power for a Better Future.” I began in similarly aspirational ways by claiming that design and design thinking could help save the world.

I was naive, smitten with the insight and beauty of the mindsets that populate design thinking. I realize there are no silver bullets that will save us. It will take hard work, at all levels, to assure that we actually reach the 22nd Century. But I still believe Design Thinking will get us there.

Apparently Serena and her classmates in NOVA Lab think so, too.

Serena C., Senior

So far this process has been an obvious enlightenment for my peers and I, seeing that this design sprint is our first purposeful project in a gradeless class. As Mr. Heidt pointed out in his usual attention grabbing manner as he spoke in German, he reminded the class that this project was not only important for the client on the receiving end of our innovations, but it was also providing us with a Weltanschauung, a “world view or outlook” unlike any other we were used to seeing. Today we elaborated upon that outlook by bringing our prototypes to life and tying up the loose ends of our presentations.

Testing and Practicing

After a small prologue in the beginning of class, groups were unleashed to work on concluding the test/pitch phase and preparing for final presentations that are now less than 48 hours away. In a gradeless class, trust and honesty between the teacher and students is key; we’ve already proven ourselves in the past, making this innovation process much smoother and easier for each group to take control of their own responsibilities. The path to success is already paved. The only difference is that as groups, we now have to help guide each other in our own decisions instead of looking to the teacher for answers to regurgitate.

However, there was no doubt of the rising tension in the room. With groups racing to Mr. Heidt and to their peers to receive feedback in hopes of reaching peak performance, the idea of a design “sprint” seems to satisfy the environment and paint the right picture. The space was filled with emotions as nervousness, excitement, and a little bit of tiredness were all swept up into a whirlwind. Everyone is scrambling for the final pitch on Friday at Flux Space, and for that final relief and payoff of all the hard work we’ve dedicated to this project for the past couple weeks.

Homegrown Design’s vision for a Community Park for Sixto

Although today’s work didn’t entail much new material, I was able to take away the important aspects of presenting as we added in the final components of our slideshow. My group finished all of our work and already had the beginnings of external feedback from other groups, so we dedicated today’s time to making our visual clear and aesthetically clean. We also divided up responsibilities of the presentation, which was executed better than I had imagined. It’s obvious how much time and effort everyone in the group spent towards this design challenge when they all demonstrated their pronounced base of knowledge through their connection with the client.

Now that we have all the information we need, it is evident that the storytelling of our presentation will most likely be the determining factor in audience engagement and the lasting effect of our innovation. Our story is going to be vital for connecting the audience to our client and keeping them engaged throughout the pitch. We’re coming together as a group with an immovable deadline driving us to the finish line, which seems daunting, but it only motivates us more. 

Looking forward, I’m beyond excited to share our innovation with the “real world”. This class has given me the opportunity to apply my ideas beyond grades in a system, and I finally get to see the work that matters to me have an actual effect outside school walls. Not only am I excited to introduce myself and my personal contributions to the world on Friday, but I’m eager to hear and learn more about innovation. The Build Design Challenge taught me a great deal about the design process, yet I still find the desire for knowledge and personal improvement knocking at my door every day.

The world can be intimidating, especially in today’s modern age, but we are the next generation. Despite the hesitation among the stubborn who refuse to open their minds, we have the power to make a difference and change the status quo. We can help those who struggle in a world where it’s easy to drown, and we can do it through human-centered innovation processes exactly like this one. We can be the ones who finally create meaningful change, and it’s all starting in a high school classroom.

Build Design Challenge: Testing–“A Little Help Here?”

Two days left. Presentations, Final Touches, Storytelling, Roles, Responsibilities…So much to do still. Luke R. picks it up from here:

Luke R., Junior

Presenting our prototypes to get feedback

Hello friends.  Today in Nova Lab, we were submerged in the Test phase of the Build Design Process, where each group refined and practiced pitching their projects to other groups.  My group first actively listened to a pitch from a few peers, and when they were done presenting their idea, the 3 members of my group gave them feedback on it.  One of my peers was adamant about speaking after the feedback, but she had to hold it in and accept what was given to her.  This helped her, as well as me, come to the realization that you know more than anyone else about your project.  If feedback is given to you about something that wasn’t interpreted right, then you as the presenter did not make it clear enough when pitching it.  This caused me to take a step back and think about what would be unclear to other people in my own project, and how I could take a step back and see from those perspectives to improve my work.

We pitched our project to another student, and the experience enlightened me that I need to work on my body language and flow of language when I speak.  I have to remain passionate about what I am explaining, so that I can instill passion into my audience.  After our presentation, we moved forward with the “prototype” phase, revising our idea.  We have most of our actual content figured out, at least the base level prior to revisions.  We have been working on putting everything into a slide show, creating a storyboard, and making our prototype, which was a drawing on a poster, more refined.  

This entire process has me extremely excited for our presentation Friday, and I think it is important to note that enjoying something makes it much easier to work towards.  During this project so far, me and my two group members have each had a moment where we say to ourselves or each other, “this is actually going to be really good.”  That sentence means a lot for a highschool student, because for many, school isn’t something people enjoy or want to work towards.  Just today, one of my peers in my group texted me about how this project was actually really exciting and that they couldn’t wait for Friday, and that made me super happy to see that it was being treated seriously, because I had the same realization earlier in this process.  

“I’m tired of people saying, ‘that’s not how it is in the real world’.

Mr. Heidt

Excitement needs to be a tool though, not a distraction.  It is important to realize that our ultimate goal is to help our client, and to learn while doing it.  Today Mr. Heidt said something that stuck with me.  “I’m tired of people saying, ‘that’s not how it is in the real world’.  We ARE in the real world.”  He’s right.  The world isn’t the same as it used to be, and in a week it will be completely different than it is now.  The real world is what we’re living in, and we have to take advantage of every opportunity, because opportunities only knock once.  

One last thing that I’d like to mention is that this project has helped me grow closer to my peers, especially the ones I’m working with.  I have friends in Nova Lab that I knew previous to the class, but the two people that I am in a group with, I did not know prior to taking this class.  I can now say that I say hello to two new people in the hallway when I see them, and that has been one of the most valuable aspects of this class for me.  Our group has merchandise, a solid team name, and the majority of the time in class is spent smiling and laughing, while getting significant work done.  Life can go by fast, but living in the moment with people you genuinely enjoy being around can help slow things down.  

Peace out innovators, go change the world.

Signing off, 

Luke (Team Bean)