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.

Do Good Things Newsletter: Design for Inclusion

Today, during a half-day of professional development, we high school teachers sat through a Zoom presentation with author and educational consultant Jenna Ruffo as she introduced and discussed the salient points of Universal Design for Learning. Ms. Ruffo has spoken to us before, on our opening day, and so we had already been primed to her message. But in all, Ms. Ruffo, through no fault of her own, was merely another talking head reading bullet points to an audience of learners whose minds were elsewhere. (Though, truthfully I don’t know that I’ve ever found anyone who can actually do such remote teaching well.)

And so a good deal of the power of Ms. Ruffo’s message was lost in the delivery. And the shame of that is that it’s so important. Teachers do need to consider all their learners, understand how to design for those most in need (and with all kinds of needs) and those whose experience can be most enriched, rather than designing for some non-existent “average student” (and yes, we did hear from Todd Rose on “The End of Average”). We need to approach all lessons with empathy for those whose neurodiverse situations require more than bullet points and reading aloud…even if that reading is filled with passionate engagement.

So what could we have done better? How might we–or how might we yet–design a learning moment that focuses less on lecture and more emphatically on experience, the greatest teacher of all? I found the answer this very evening in the Curtis Building at 6th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, courtesy of frog design and the “Design Philadelphia” festival. A small, but clearly empathetically designed experience called “Designing for Inclusion.”

Designing for an immersive experience, frog crafted some simple and effective experiences, coupled with informative graphic placards and a “ticket reward system” to not only help visitors experience what it is like to “live in a world that is not designed for you,” but to realize the vast amount of privilege most of us carry in this world.

Each station/experience was geared towards a different type of neurodiverse situation or consequence thereof. One station asked us to listen to an informative recording in order to answer questions afterwards–except the recording was actually two tracks layered on top of each other. This station was geared towards helping us build empathy for those who experience auditory processing issues.

Other experiences offered us the chance to think deeply about the impact of color blindness and the almost 300 million people who perceive the world absent an ability to distinguish red and green. Given the prevalence of these colors as indicators of so much in the Western world, such a neurodiverse population (actually 1/12 males suffer from R/G colorblindness) clearly presents huge obstacles for many people.

Further into the experience, we had the opportunity to read aloud a block of text with flickering and changing letters, thus asking us to step into a situation faced by dyslexic people every day. I tried to capture the different stations below.

To be clear, Universal Design For Learning is a just and necessary shift for our district and for all districts. I believe all teachers understand this as well. Rationally, as Jenna Ruffo’s informative presentation indicated, it is an imperative. But we do not make most of our decisions in the classroom, or really, elsewhere, with rational thought. We are far more moved through our emotional centers. What I experienced at Frog on Wednesday night was not “better” than the powerpoint in terms of its content. But the experience made clear, in a way the power point could not, the path I need to take in the future to design my lessons with a more clear, and inclusive intention.

But further, the impact on NOVA Lab of my experience at frog is clear now and will be implemented in our next design sprint for Build.org’s “Build, Design Challenge.” This challenge features five potential clients, all real, diverse people in real and diverse situations. While we have always begun our designs by engaging in empathy interviews and developing insights from those collaborative observations, his year, I will be sure to teach the basics of inclusive design such that whatever entrepreneurial solutions students may develop for their clients, they will be informed by the principles of inclusive, universal, accessible design.

Do Good Things Newsletter: Warren Buffett on Happiness

Last year I started a weekly (mostly…sometimes…infrequently) newsletter focusing on the good things that designers and other creatives in the world have been doing to try to make a positive impact on the world.

From coffee shops, to bike paths, to baseball camps for young children…there’s a lot of good going on in a world that we don’t often hear about. Of course, that sounds like so much marketing drivel in the grand scheme of things. “Oh! Yea! Let’s celebrate the good things. That’s original.”

Sure…I get the criticism. But I’m not going to stop. Every small gesture matters. And whether she did or didn’t say it (because at this point, every quotation on the internet seems called into question), I’ll quote Margaret Mead.

I consider us here in NOVA Lab as a small group of thoughtful … citizens looking to do “good things.” That’s at the heart of our class vision: “A collaborative community of creators driven for immense good.” But I also realize that it’s often hard to live that kind of life day in and day out. Not everyone can be so selfless and future focused as to live each day by that vision. We need to be able to pursue our own happiness for our own sake.

Which is why a recent article in Inc. magazine caught my attention.

Yes, going to Warren Buffett, one of the richest men ever, to seek the enlightenment of his highness on how to live a happy life seems rather…silly. Of course a billionaire is happy. Of course he has little to worry about. Of course he is living off the fatted land. But wait… He’s not retired (wholly)? He still works and puts in time at the office and at his non profits?

Yeah…he does, so far as I can tell. And what’s more, he’s darn happy.

All of you are on the cusp of adulthood. All of you are thinking about how to best navigate the open waters of the sea gaping before you as you leave HS. But maybe one thing you’ve not considered is what, exactly, will make you happy?

Click me

Enter stage right…Warren Buffett.

(I swear, a short but definitive read of this article on Buffett will give you some great tips on navigating an especially vexing aspect of your life, regardless of your age.)

Buffett’s advice is not new. When I was a junior in college at Temple Univ. back in 1989, I recall someone suggesting a book to me. The title? Do What You Love, The Money Will Come Later. It was merely one among countless such books whose titles dominated the space in local stores. And sure, it’s a bit hard to take such homespun advice culled from the life of a man whose fortune was once the largest in the world. But he’s also the man who famously still lives in the same home he bought in 1958 for $31,000, and who, while he drives a modestly luxurious vehicle, could certainly afford far more.

In the end, what seems most genuine to me, is Buffett himself. He’s managed to keep an even keel and sail through the often turbulent waters of life with relative, happy ease. If we were to think of Buffett as a Wayfinder, well…I think we could do far worse than to sail on his boat.

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 fluxspace.io. 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.