NuVu Studio: A Non-Traditional Approach to Learning about Homelessness

Last January NuVu Studio in Central Square set out to teach their students empathy and compassion for the homeless.

When they were done, the students had designed a vending machine that distributes scarves, a kenetic energy device that charges iPhones, and a new sign for Harvard Square’s Y2Y shelter.

NuVu Studio is a full-time innovation school for middle- and high-school students, ranging from ages 11 to 19 years. The school opened its doors to students in March 2010 and is based on an architectural studio model in which creativity is fostered through collaborative projects, Adam Steinberg, dean of students at NuVu Studio, said.

In the past few years, Rosa Weinberg, idea engineer at NuVu Studio, along with Steinberg, have run studios related to issues of homelessness. The studio hosted in October 2014 was called “Easing the Street,” Weinberg said. The most recent one in January 2016 was called “Inhabiting the Street.”

Weinberg said that the idea to conduct a homelessness studio was born out of conversations with Saeed Arida, chief excitement officer at NuVu Studio and Dr. Avik Chatterjee from Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. Dr. Chatterjee connected NuVu Studio to Pine Street Inn, a local homeless shelter in Boston with which NuVu Studio collaborated to run the studios. According to Steinberg, one of the main aims of the homelessness studio was to teach empathy and compassion.

Weinberg stated that she conducted the homelessness studio to enable children to understand the complexity of the underlying issues that lead to homelessness. Weinberg’s own goal was to understand the complexities associated with homelessness while using design to approach the broader topic of social justice.

According to Steinberg, what makes NuVu Studio different from a traditional school is that it consists of studios. Around 10 to 12 students learn under the guidance of two coaches. Students learn from a studio based on various topics ranging from technology to fashion to food. The school’s educational model originated with the founder, Arida, who completed his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During his studies, Arida designed a graduation ring that included a puzzle. The puzzle competition winner was David Wang, a fellow student at that time, who later started NuVu Studio with Arida and Saba Ghole, who is the current chief executive officer.

The homelessness studios lasted three weeks each. According to Steinberg, the group collaborated with Pine Street Inn and the Y2Y Homeless Shelter. During the first week, students conducted research to understand what issues homeless communities face. They dug deeper to understand what it takes to be a part of a homeless shelter and how some people are left out of the homeless shelter system. Steinberg added that in the second week, the students brainstormed to figure out what to do for the homeless community and, in the final week, they built and created what they envisioned.

During the studio, Dr. Chatterjee provided his perspectives on working with the homeless. Steinberg stated, “Dr. Chatterjee gave a real glimpse of what it means to be homeless since he works very closely with them and has been for a while. He provided a spectrum of challenges that the homeless face from medical maladies to real social challenges.”

Just like other studios, the homelessness studios ended with a three to seven minute presentation by each student, Steinberg said. The students also created several products.

The first product Steinberg mentioned was a kinetic charging device, Steinberg said. The device would charge as you walk and the charge could then be used to charge an iPhone. Steinberg mentioned with great enthusiasm that they even tested the device to make sure it was able to charge an iPhone. The second product was a vending machine for shelters. It would cater to the shelters because the vending machines would carry rolls of cloth that could be cut into pieces to serve as scarves for the homeless. Steinberg stated that this idea came about because students wanted to address homeless people’s concerns during the cold winters when scarves are such a valuable commodity. The third product the students created was a sign for the Y2Y Homeless Shelter. There is a plan to donate the sign in the future.

While the sign will be donated, the vending machine and the phone charger are not ready for prime time.

“The students were able to make prototypes of their ideas but there was not enough time to make market-ready products.  This is most often the case in our two or three week studio format and the prototypes are often very rough,” Steinberg said. “We concentrate on teaching the design process and the development of the ideas behind the design, but the output is most often a prototype, not a finished product. There are certain projects that seem like they could go on and become a real product and we are thinking of ways to enable that in the future.”

According to Weinberg, “NuVu Studio has also had other coaches who have led studios around similar topics. For instance, Elizabeth Herman and Christopher Reinhardt, two journalists and filmmakers/photographers, have led a number of documentary filmmaking studios around issues of homelessness, food and mental health, and immigrant communities such as the Tibetan community in Cambridge.”

She added: “We also have an Art in Public Space studio that is being led by artist, Shilo Shiv Suleman, around some of the issues affecting the city of Cambridge such as gentrification and homelessness.”

When asked about the biggest lesson learned from the homelessness studio, Weinberg stated, “The homelessness studio I taught, Easing the Street, was my first studio that related to social justice. Through that experience and others, I came to understand the wide spectrum of design as it is applies to social issues. I am still learning how to approach it with sensitivity.”

Weinberg said she would eventually like students to work more closely with the homeless what creating their designs.

“For me, the ultimate application of design to issues related to homelessness is for our students to co-design with homeless families,” Weinberg said. “It has been difficult for us to make these contacts.

“If anyone in the community would like to work with us, please get in touch with us,” Weinberg said.

[Ed note: a previous version of this article stated the sign was donated, however that hasn’t happened yet.
It also stated that the Coalition for the Homeless was a partner, but that wasn’t the case. These errors have been fixed in the copy above.]

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