Pass/Fail and the Studio

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, MA at the NuVu Studios, a project of some former graduates at MIT — Saeed Arida, Saba Ghole, Sean Stevens, and David Wang — and the Beaver Country Day School.

The structure of the NuVu Studio is quite astonishing.  They take a group of twenty students from sophomore, junior and senior years in high school, and throw them together into the form of a design firm, designing and creating products, materials and studies for a variety of clients.  NuVu splits them up into design teams of no more than 10 students, with an assistant coach and a primary coach, who guide them through the research, design, and prototyping stages of product development.

The students I met were both typical high school students, and also  extraordinarily motivated.  In the time that I was there, from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm, I saw students using professional-grade software, make highly technical decisions about materials and equipment, assemble prototypes, design systems, evaluate products and services, review their earlier work, communicate with each other and with their team leaders, and make difficult choices.  They also presented their projects and their programs with articulate intelligence, enthusiasm, and grace.

At its heart, the NuVu Studio represents a different kind of high school curriculum.  Instead of saying, “be in this classroom for an hour, and do forty minutes of homework tonight on this subject; then go to your next class for another assignment,” Saeed, Saba and their team say, “Be here for the school day.  You don’t have homework — you’re going to be tired from a day of hard thinking and doing — but be thinking about the end product.”  The end product is always a real-world result, and the dancing robots, the human-avoiding chair, the elaborate bicycle-powered juicer-and-musical-instrument speak to the inventiveness of prior classes.

Students at the NuVu Studio get a pass/fail grade, but these kids were working like students out for the A.

I’m reluctant to name what it is that makes them like this.  Saeed and Saba might say it was the Design Studio model of learning, in which students are presented with a problem, and are then asked to provide a solution.  The young adults work in conjunction with adult mentors, but they were clearly seeking out answers to their questions on their own, as engaged learners.

I asked the young people, and their dean back at BCDS, what their classes were like with NuVu graduates in them. “Oh, they have a few days of adjusting to being back in school after a trimester away,” one student said (approximately, since I didn’t want to record her words exactly).  “But then they are just as motivated as regular kids, and far more willing to delve deep into a topic, and really learn it.  They come back more energized and take charge.”  The dean echoed their sentiments, saying that the NuVu students were more engaged and empowered, and usually completely changed the classes they came back to re-join.

This is clearly part of the real reform that needs to happen.  These high schoolers working on real-world problems, designing and building and testing real-world solutions in software and hardware, clearly believed that they still needed traditional classroom work, to improve their reading and writing and mathematical skills.  But they were more engaged than many other I’ve seen — more skeptical of claims, more willing to investigate any question placed before them, more involved and take-charge in their own learning.

All for a pass/fail grade.

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