Imagine a high school with no classrooms, no history classes, no curriculum and no grades. Picture instead a handful of students in one big space, working with coaches from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to create new inventions and solutions to the world's biggest problems. Solutions like a telepresence robot that acts as your remote eyes and ears, a medical space that takes the wait out of waiting room and Boston re-imagined with a mass-transit system of cable cars.
Pure fantasy, right? But if you're wondering how many high-schoolers have the mental muscles of Einstein or the creative chops to construct something truly world-changing, read on.
Saeed Arida — founder and "chief excitement officer" of NuVu or "new view" in Cambridge, Massachusetts — believes we underestimate kids. And to prove it, he's created an "innovation center" like the one described above for high school and middle school students. His aim: to overturn common assumptions about teenage apathy and their "missing" ingenuity chip.
"Creativity is coming up with an idea and going through an intense iterative process [a method of refining products or solutions through continual feedback from others] to produce a final thing," he says. "Everybody is capable of doing that."
A better way to learn
Arida, 36, was introduced to this creativity-enhancing process — called the studio model — while attending architecture school at MIT. There students created designs, received feedback from professors and other students, and applied it to improve their creations.
For Arida, a native of Syria, it was a refreshing switch from the traditional schooling he was used to (not unlike the American public-school experience) where kids listen passively to the teacher, take notes, read textbooks, and then memorize everything for exams. "I scored high on tests and got the best grades, but I found testing and grading meaningless," he says. "When I came to MIT, it was extremely liberating. I saw that learning can actually be fun."
Arida was so taken with the architecture studio model he focused his doctoral research on employing it to teach general creativity. He launched a pilot program in 2010 with students from nearby Beaver Country Day School. It was so successful he decided to pursue it full-time and signed the school on as a founding partner. NuVu now takes about 70 kids annually from Beaver Country Day School, as well as home-schoolers and students from other public and private schools.
The year is divided into three 11-week terms. Each term focuses on a specific theme and offers several two-week studios to choose from. During a term on health, for example, studios ranged from creating mobile devices that monitor body functions to designing games that encourage healthier lifestyles. The "home of the future" term offered studios on wearable tech and smarter mail delivery.
About 10 kids attend each studio, along with a coach and assistant coach (typically faculty and doctoral students from MIT and Harvard). The coach starts by describing a problem and then lets the kids devise solutions. Math, physics and history aren't taught separately, but are part of a "general bag of tools" that students use as needed, Arida says.
Students receive feedback from coaches and outside experts, returning to the drawing board repeatedly to incorporate suggestions and improve their creations. At the end of each studio, professors, entrepreneurs and designers evaluate students’ work.
The NuVu studio setup encourages creativity and sharing. (Photo: NuVu)
Ironically, the most effective way to teach creativity is also one of the scariest: the critique. Arida believes this fear stems from a culture that applauds individuality and personal expression over collaboration.
"It probably goes back to when we’re 2 or 3 and make drawings that our parents glorify and put on the refrigerator without actually telling us how to make them better," Arida says. "Even in art school, students don't expect feedback because it's their art and they want to do it their way. With the studio model, you invite the teacher into your space and allow yourself to be vulnerable and get feedback so you can make your project better."
Once NuVu students get past their critique fears — and most do quickly because feedback is generally gentle and constructive — the results can be potentially life-altering.
See what some former students have to say about their experience in the video below:
During a DIY prosthetics studio, students designed several highly praised prosthetic devices, including the Ratchet Hand fitted with holes to fit a fork, spoon, knife, Sharpie, pencil and paintbrush. Designs are posted online for anyone to use. Another invention — the PD Ring worn by Parkinson’s patients to monitor tremors and send data to their doctors — is being tested in a hospital.
"NuVu is a very transformative experience," Arida says. Not only do kids discover creative abilities they didn’t know they had — abilities often squashed in conventional one-size-fits-all schools — but many also change what they want to study in college.
Arida hopes to empower more kids by spreading his methods to as many schools as possible, including back in Syria. "Every student deserves the chance to be in a space like this and given the opportunity to be creative," he says.
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