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Wrapping up NuVu: Reflections on Technology, Design and Project based Learning

This winter, I travelled to Cambridge, MA to co-run a two week design lab course out of Nuvu with highschoolers. This post focuses on the second week of the studio. For the overview of the first week of the studio, please click here.  For an overview of NuVu, please click here. The two weeks at the NuVu studio closed with electronically blossoming flowers and augmented reality videos overlayed on to real time objects. It was hard to believe it had all pulled together so rapidly. The headmaster of the Beaver School, which requires NuVu studio courses as part of its curriculum, along with other experts in the field, were all present at the event.


The workshop, despite all planning, and the seemingly long hours of 9-3 PM, unfolded at a rapid pace requiring constant reworking of the day’s game plan at the beginning and middle of each day. The students’ engagement moved through periods of listening, periods of making, and the hardest part of all, periods of drawing on their own insight and creativity. The necessity of having a vision to guide one’s work became apparent once the task of buckling down and getting to work commenced and the questions began–what should I do? what should I do next?

Mapping_our_cityIn anticipation of this, the workshop was designed to begin top heavy on reading, reflective writing on the multi-layered experience of being, walking and living in a city and ways of mapping and portraying that experience. The workshop pushed the students to pick a theme to focus their city explorations–the theme could be as broad as the narrative of one’s memory through space to as specific as quiet places in Central Square. The student’s blog posts became a wonderful way of tracking their musing that cumulated in their end of studio project–a collaged map and augmented reality videos overlayed on city sites using the iphone and ipad app Aurasma. The second week was a week of intensive self directed work. The students first storyboarded and then created videos. These videos were then overlayed over the real life object using aurasma. Aurasma has a wonderful Ted talk, which can be viewed here, that gives a sense of how this app works and what its implications are for school.

The activity and energy of the students while doing this work was quite thrilling. It was clear that for some the self directed project based work was easier and more effortless and for others harder and less clear. The studio model clearly taps into other forms of learning and knowledge creation.

I have continued over the weeks since then to reflect on the studio model as one that is greatly important for the future. It has led me to some different readings and to look for the support of the idea of studio based learning in other sectors.

The new TED book, Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education, by Emily Pilloton explores the power of project based learning and construction paired with creativity in high schools.

The TED blog describes:

“Through the eyes of her students, Pilloton tells the story of the group’s hopes, failures and triumphs. According to Pilloton, we can dramatically revamp vocational education and build the change we wish to see in the world. And she should know: ultimately her students were given the key to the city by their mayor for initiating, designing, and building three public chicken coops and a 2000-square-foot public farmer’s market structure. In Tell Them I Built This, Pilloton offers tools for building change in communities, tips for turning a vision into meaningful work, and clear and inspiring directions on how to get it done. Tell Them I Built This dramatically shows how creativity, critical thinking, citizenship and dirt-under-your-fingernails construction can radically transform both high school education and the local community where the students live.”

The book seems to wonderfully capture the necessity of letting student’s make something as part of their educational experience. It gives them a sense of what it means to do something beginning to end. It also allows them to draw on their own ideas and imagination and create something tangible. Lastly, it requires the students to work in teams and communicate effectively to bring plans into fruition.

An article that came out recently in the New York Times, highlights why the project based, studio education could be particularly good for boys education:

“Aviation High School, and students there spend roughly half the day disassembling engines, fiddling with planes, etc. They seem to get very good results, and their website indicates that graduates go on to everything from immediate jobs to the military to average colleges to MIT, Brown, and the like. The specialized focus seems very effective at engaging students.”

The idea of rethinking classrooms to address different kinds of interest, abilities and levels of self control is compelling. The mission of Aviation High school not only connects to the rethinkED team’s work but also is part of a growing trend.  Obama in his commencement speech states states:

“Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.”

It seems there is a push to educate for applicable skills that require collaboration and creation. I look forward to seeing how the rethinkED team can continue to rethink the classroom and incorporate these outcomes and, when also hold onto to the merits of solitude and individual work–a topic for an upcoming post.

NuVU Mapping Central Square


he Nuvu City Mapping project has taken off. Despite the cold weather for walking, students in the studio have set off on their own derives inspired by Guy Debord. A derive as Debord defines it is “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” [1] The derive is a walk in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Students read Dubord’s work and used his theory to guide their own derive planning.

Students wrote invisible city narratives inspired by Italo Calvino, the Italian authors, imaginary cities based on the travels of Marco Polo. Students studied a slew of maps, including maps from the Situationalist tradition, mapping the tangible and intangible, and begun to sketch and journal about the types of maps they might take on.

NuVu is a design lab for highschool students and is based MIT, Cambridge, MA. The students come from public and private schools in the area. Please see the earlier rethinkED blog post for background details. At its crux, the lab is based around giving students advanced theories and tools to build out pre-defined projects called Studios. The City Mapping studio came out of the tradition of mapping city spaces through memory and personal experience. It draws from architecture, literature, urban theory and the post modern theory to name a few influences.

The first two days centered around exploration, both on the streets and in the studio, of the type of mapping that has been done by the likes of the situationalists and others. The students have brainstormed a host of subjects to be mapped, including their own memories and experience and have explored ways to represent the data. They have looked to poetry, music and interviewing as a way to supplement the maps. At the onset of the course they have been reading the poetry of the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and watching video projects mapping people’s responses in Cambridge in past NuVU projects. The next step will be for them to create their own poems and interviews.

Stay tuned for more in the following week! The second step will be to build out the maps into collages. The following step will be to add an augmented reality dimension to the map as well….

NuVu: Students and Cutting Edge Design

In a recent conversation with a designer friend at NYU, she said, speaking of her and her peers, “It’s hard to explain, but now that we all realized we can imagine a design and actually make it a reality, we want to teach others to do it too.” This moment of discovering one’s own potential to use a process to imagine and create is at the crux of educational agency. At its heart, education is about enabling others to be creative and discover the wonder of building things and understanding.

Our conversation continued to the ways technology has changed the classroom and learning experience. She praised how technology has allowed students to do more, to be more self-directed, to more quickly access tools that put them in a feedback loop with different experts. Her concern was how students know what to work on. For her, as a graduate student, figuring out what to work on is one of the hardest things to do. It’s true that sometimes you need to work through pre-established projects for building skills and finding yourself. For other students, its not a matter of knowing what projects to do, but a matter of having the resources and skill set to build the projects. It would be amazing, we thought, if there was a place built around helping students to understand and work through design projects at an earlier age so they could be more prepared to see ideas through to fruition in college and beyond.

There is such a place, right in Central Square. The NuVu design lab for high schools has not only an incredible location but also a spacious and light-filled design space: a critical part of the formula because it provides a sense of openness, possibility and free reign.  Director Saeed Arida, or Chief Excitement Officer, Saba Ghole, or Chief Creative Officer, and David Wang who oversees all of the technology aspects at NuVu. They have created a studio where innovative education practices for the future play out. The lab provides public and private school students in the Cambridge/ Boston area with state-of-the-art cutting edge tools and works from the assumption that high school students can used advanced computer programing software, can learn to build robots akin to the ones being built at MIT, can essentially take on and manipulate the same tools the most advanced specialists are using.

NuVu describes itself in the following words:
“NuVu is a full-time magnet innovation center for middle and high school students and a professional development program for teachers and educators. NuVu’s pedagogy is based on the architectural studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. Established in the Fall of 2010 in Cambridge, MA, NuVu provides students the opportunity to work collaboratively with experts, PhDs and alumni from MIT and Harvard as well as working professionals, to solve real-world problems in an intensive and fun studio environment. For teachers and educators, NuVu provides training on how to bring innovative practices to students’ learning using project-based methods. NuVu nurtures creative problem solving, team collaboration across networks, communication and presentation skills, systems thinking, adaptability, risk-taking and imagination, all critical for student success.”

In a recent visit to the studio, I discovered high school students hunched over desks, computers, and mechanical parts, hard at work with all of the tools and experts at their fingertips–Saeed and Saba work to contact the top professionals in the field to provide guidance. For example, students on the flight simulator project had opportunities to hear from leaders at NASA. NuVu’s in house tools include laser cutters, 3D printers, and a full tool shop for construction. The high schoolers were one week into a two-week workshop of building a flight simulator. What they had created by the end of week one was incredible: an electronically moving seat on a pulley system that a passenger mounted while wearing goggles that projected a programmed simulation experience. Another group of students in an adjoining room were designing futuristic outfits to go along with the future simulator theme which went on to be displayed at the Boston Fashion Week guiding by fashion design experts. Click here to read more about the designs. The energy and enthusiasm and deep sense of focus were palpable as I watched the team of high schoolers at work, trying ideas, sharing solutions, working either together or alone on portions of the project.

The idea for the design lab came from Saeed’s dissertation at MIT and David Wang who is finishing his PhD at MIT in Artificial Intelligence and Aero-space. Saeed and David received  seed money from the Beaver School to start NuVu, and all Beaver students are required to do the workshop as part of their school experience. Originally working with private school students, the lab works with publics, privates, and charters and maintains that access to the studio for all students is central to its mission.

Saeed, David and Saba are inspirations who have thought through an extremely successful model for how to have a unique project based learning experience where students are designing incredibly complex inventions in short periods of time using state-of-the-art software and tools. The lab work focuses not just on the engineering and design of the projects, but also on the character skills and teamwork needed to work intensely as a team everyday for two weeks to create a design.

This winter they are unveiling a NuVu workshop space in India that they are hoping their partner school high school students will also travel to. They also hope to open a workspace in New York in the fall of 2013.

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