This spring, members of the Nueva community traveled to Austin, Texas, to present at the ninth annual SXSW Edu® Conference & Festival. From student-designed inventions to innovative curriculum, our presenters showcased the success of Nueva’s Design Thinking program.
Nueva Students Win SXSW Edu Student Startup Competition
In the moments before the judges of the fifth annual SXSW Edu Student Startup Competition announced a winner, eleventh grader Pranav R. was texting his Stria Labs teammates, who were waiting for news in California.
“Pranav called the competition for another team,” said eleventh grader Noah T. “He was sure they were going to win.”
The competition was steep from the outset. Stria Labs, a student-run startup dedicated to creating solutions for the visually impaired, was one of only 8 high school teams, across the country and internationally, invited to pitch their business idea at SXSW Edu. The rarity of this opportunity—to present before business leaders at a conference known for game-changing ideas—hit home for the team.
“This was our first truly large public event,” said eleventh grader Max S. “We really focused on, ‘What’s the narrative we want to convey?’”
This question is a story a year-and-a-half in the making. Founded in the summer of 2017, the startup was originally the brainchild of four Nueva students inspired by their Design Engineering for Social Good class. They wanted an outlet outside of class to continue exploring the Design Thinking process, and they had users they wanted to serve: the blind. They joined Nueva’s Invention Studio, an incubator for empathy-based design, and got to work.
In the fall of 2017, they began interviewing visually impaired users and building an understanding of their needs. Word spread across the Upper School and soon the Stria Labs team grew to 15 students. With more people on hand, their user research went deep (they have collected feedback from over 120 visually impaired users to date). They uncovered a problem they felt determined to solve: veering. The struggle to walk a straight path is one of the greatest dangers for the visually impaired, especially when crossing traffic.
After several cycles of interviewing, brainstorming, prototyping, and iterating, one of their design ideas stuck. They created a smart band, worn under clothes or as a belt, that detects veering. The band buzzes on the left or right depending on which direction a person is straying.
This February, the team filed a patent application for the Stria Band, and formally incorporated as “Stria Labs, Inc.” in March.
We’re entirely student-run, and independently funded." -Noah T., grade 11
“We’re entirely student-run, and independently funded,” said Noah T., who stressed that there is no parent funding. He estimates the team has been applying for grants at a rate of one per week over the last month. In the last year, the team has won four grants, amounting to $6,500.
When the SXSW Edu judges announced the winners, Pranav, Max, and Wesley S.—the students attending the conference—had more than one big surprise to share with their team.
“We had no idea there was a cash prize involved,” said Pranav. The team won $1,000.
“After we won, I spoke with the judges,” said Max. “They said our process is what made our project stand out.” Most of the other student groups had come up with a product idea they liked, created that product, and then looked for users to test it. The Stria Labs team first found users they wanted to serve, uncovered a problem by listening to those users, and created a product to solve it.
“It was a perfect validation of the design process we learn at Nueva,” said Noah. “Our goal is really to have a positive impact on the blind market.”
SXSW Experience Opens the Eyes of Our Faculty Presenter
Two years ago, I-Lab teacher and engineer Rob Zomber set out to develop a design thinking and engineering class specifically for students who didn't identify as makers. He recognized that while there were many Nueva students who loved engineering, it would take innovation by the I-Lab team to bring in students less drawn to STEM.
“I flipped my own script and asked myself, how might I build an engineering elective to bring new students into our space?” Rob said. “I wanted them to experience the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from completing a full-cycle project, going from user needs to installation. But getting them comfortable, interested, and engaged in unfamiliar curriculum could be daunting.”
I flipped my own script and asked myself, how might I build an engineering elective to bring new students into our space?" - Rob Zomber, I-Lab teacher and engineer
His solution was Creature Comforts, an Upper School elective where students design habitats for a local wild animal sanctuary. The class ran for the first time in spring 2018 and was a success—it also became the topic of Rob’s SXSW EDU presentation.
In September, community voting, an advisory board, and SXSW staff combined to select his conference proposal, “Zoo Design: Engaging a Different Type of Student,” as one of their Future20 sessions, 20-minute talks that highlight new and emerging ideas.
At this month’s event, Rob shared his curriculum development and how a class of predominantly non-STEM students used design thinking and “a ton of passion” to complete a lofty design challenge in a mere four months.
His SXSW EDU talk addressed how to build an engineering curriculum for non-engineers, and how to market it. He also incorporated how animal-centered design can help students learn new skills, look beyond user interviews, and redefine empathy.
“Presenting at SXSW really made me appreciate the freedom and opportunities Nueva offers us,” Rob said. “The number of other people who were like, ‘Wow, that’s great, but I could never do that at my school,’ put it into perspective for me.”
He also attended presentations ranging from how to build community safety, school architecture, and different teaching methods. Equity in makerspaces was a big topic in many conversations.
“The biggest thing was getting girls involved in STEM, including makerspaces and engineering classes—how do we identify them, how do they identify themselves, how do we get them involved. It was really neat to talk to a lot of people about what kind of language they’re using, how they’re marketing classes, and how are they’re making spaces that encourage those new to the area to feel comfortable,” Rob said.
He was particularly inspired by other schools who are also serving their local communities through makerspaces—similar to the Creature Comforts partnership with the wildlife sanctuary.
“I’d love for us to create additional community partnerships so we can build upon this,” Rob said.
“We are way ahead of where other schools are in terms of giving students voice and the ability to design their own projects,” Rob said. “Being at the forefront, we have a responsibility to help education move in that direction.”
Aligned with Nueva’s mission to be a private school with a public purpose (what we call Mission Two), Rob hopes the I-Lab team will have more opportunities to share their knowledge and experience with other educators by presenting at future conferences.
“I’ve seen how successful our program is,” Rob said. “At SXSW EDU, I learned that many issues teachers face could be solved with some of the work we do with our students.”