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Nueva Student’s Memory Lives on through Social Innovation Fellowship
Rachel Freeman, communications/website manager

The Quintessential Nueva Student
Joey Kovacevich was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. 

Joey Kovacevich

To his parents, Joey was “an innovator. He had a big imagination and huge intellectual curiosity.” 

To his sister, Lucy ’24, he was her best friend and “the I-Lab kid of the family.”

To Diane Rosenberg, former Nueva head of school, Joey was “the quintessentially Nueva student, someone whose kindness and gentleness infused our school.” 

His fourth-grade teacher, Matt Berman, said knowing Joey was life changing: “He changed the way I see the world.” 

In July 2014, Joey tragically lost his hard-fought battle with cancer. He had just completed the fourth grade at Nueva. At the memorial service, Matt shared, “In the midst of terrible physical trials that would have most of us unable to think of anything except ourselves and our misery, he offered that radiant Joey smile to everyone . . . along with kind and thoughtful words that showed that his thoughts were not with himself, but with those around him.”

The Establishment of the Joey Kovacevich Social Innovation Fellowship
It was this kindness that attracted people to Joey and is what inspired so many in the Nueva community to donate to the school in Joey’s memory. 

Nueva was such a profound part of Joey’s life that, “in the obituary and at the memorial service, we asked people to donate to Nueva in lieu of flowers,” said Joey’s mom, Bradley. “Nueva was his greatest love.” 

The $137,000 that poured in from more than 130 donors has provided the seed money for the Joey Kovacevich Social Innovation Fellowship, which is now in its third year. 

“When we thought about how to use the generous donations that people provided in memory of Joey, we came up with this innovation fund,” said Joey’s dad, Todd. “Joey had a passion for innovation and a passion for social good. We asked ourselves, ‘What could we do that celebrates what Joey loved?’ This fund does that.”

Nueva students across all grade levels are invited each year to apply for a Joey Fellowship.

“The fellowship is awarded to students or groups who have designed something that would solve a specific problem and benefit the world, and who need the funds to take the project out of the prototyping phase and into action in the real world,” said I-Lab Director Angi Chau. “The project should demonstrate the use of design thinking in action.” 

Sixth graders Talia F. and Miriam H. built a peg loom and are weaving blankets to give to children in hospitals.

Projects Rooted in Empathy 
While Joey’s time ended after fourth grade, his legacy transcends all grades and divisions at Nueva. Eleven projects have received grant funding for the 2020–2021 school year, including one project that is being funded for a second time. Team MODAP is a group of upper school students working to create a cost-effective, automated drone system that streamlines the search and rescue and post-fire relief process.

The team wrote in its grant application, “MODAP seeks to create positive change in the disaster-technology space in two key ways: by providing autonomous search and rescue operations and facilitating payload delivery.”

Over the past year, the group has designed, built, and verified an open-source software platform that is able to identify humans through a custom machine learning model in real time from an aerial perspective. In January, the team was recognized by SXSW EDU—which, according to its website, “annually celebrates and honors groundbreaking work in education”—as a finalist in the Student Startup category. 

Another Joey Fellowship team is working to install a weather station on the Hillsborough campus and to build an app that can report the weather on people’s phones. After learning about the Joey Fellowship last year in their third-grade class, fourth graders Mia T. Lucia v. G., and Kaci G. were inspired to apply for the grant and begin prototyping their idea.

“We heard about this opportunity from our third-grade teacher Priscilla [Jih],” Mia said. “The goal of the grant is to make Nueva a better place, and we have a passion for making Nueva a better place.”

Lucia shared, “Our first idea was to set up a weather station on campus, which is as simple as buying one. As we dived deeper, we thought that we should build an app where all of the data can go to a website.” 

Kaci, Mia, and Lucia of Team Weather Station meet via Zoom every Saturday to discuss their project.

“I am so impressed and proud of the weather station team,” said Priscilla, the team’s faculty advisor. “Mia, Lucia, and Kaci truly work as a team, and they are dedicated and thoughtful in everything they do.” 

Another member of the Nueva community has been so impressed with Team Weather Station, he was inspired to give to the fund after meeting with them. Nueva Director of Technology Ed Chen met with Mia, Lucia, and Kaci to talk through some of the logistics of setting up the weather station and having it be WiFi-enabled.

“I donated to this project because it was headed by fourth-grade girls interested enough in weather science to actually build a solution,” Ed said. “I also wanted to encourage these girls because they are tackling a broader subject matter—science—not traditionally filled with women. I wanted to show them and hopefully others that supporting girls in the sciences is critical to our collective future success. My hope is these girls will become leaders in their future fields of study.”

Students are welcome to apply for the fellowship as individuals or teams and, to Todd, there’s something special about seeing teams strive to solve problems they see in the world. 

“We really value when a team comes together, and you call tell that they are all passionate and that they are all playing a role,” he said. 

Design by Stroke Recovery

Sixth graders Miriam H. and Talia F. have had their project in mind since they were in the fourth grade, when they learned to weave in Matt Berman’s class. The pair are weaving blankets on a peg loom to donate to children in hospitals. As part of their project, they built the peg loom themselves, their own tribute to Joey. 

“We decided to apply for the fellowship because it had to do with Joey,” Talia shared. “Joey loved the I-Lab and we chose to build our own peg loom because of him. We would have built it in the I-Lab if we could.” 

“My brother was really close friends with Joey,” Miriam said. “I remember when we made paper cranes for Joey and brought them to the hospital. We realized then that giving patients gifts brings them so much joy. This is why we want to donate our blankets to children in hospitals.” 

When applying for the grant, students often share their connections to Joey, which his family finds particularly moving. 

“Students will often say, ‘I knew Joey and here’s what he meant to me,’ or ‘I’ve heard about Joey, and he’s so inspiring,’” Todd shared. “His spirit really lives on through this.” 

“We sit through presentations [when students pitch their ideas to us] and feel like it could be Joey giving the presentation,” Bradley added. “We like to think that he would have been part of these projects.” 

Since Joey would have been a teenager now, many upper school students find deep connections with Joey and this fellowship. For junior Maya A.—who began at Nueva the fall after Joey’s passing—this was one of the main reasons she wanted to apply for a grant.

“The Joey Fellowship appealed to my team for more than just monetary reasons,” she said. “It’s a great way to honor Joey’s memory because I think our project can make a real difference.”

Maya and her team, Stroke Recovery, are working to build a camera and an app that helps people who suffer from stroke-related memory loss and prosopagnosia, a crippling condition in which people are unable to recognize familiar faces. 

“The idea came through us asking each other, ‘What would be the coolest thing we could build?’” said junior Sophia Y. “The idea of having a camera recognize people isn’t the most unique, so instead of the camera just directly giving you an answer of who it is, it would give you hints. The idea is to help build up one’s memory.”

David C. '22 tests out an exothermic reaction.

The team, which also participates in Invention Studio, had just begun the prototyping stage when team members applied for a grant. The students are using the funding they received to purchase cameras and other necessary equipment. 

In addition to creating their prototype and gathering data from users, the team hopes to help people who struggle from face blindness and also to raise awareness about this condition. 

“Physical disabilities are most talked about after someone has a stroke,” Sophia explained. “Mental issues related to strokes are talked about less frequently. It’s a debilitating issue. Through this project and in conversations with someone who suffers from prosopagnosia, I’ve learned a lot about user-centered design.”

“I’ve learned a lot about user research and the design thinking process,” said junior Karen G., echoing Sophia. “It’s been very helpful to talk to Ken [a stroke survivor] and learn more about post-stroke recovery.” 

While all of the Joey Fellowship projects have at their core the goal of making a positive social impact in the world, some of the projects have a more whimsical nature to them. Junior David C. is working independently on RAMEN, which stands for Recyclable Auto-Matic Exothermic Environmentally-sustainable Noodles. (“Scientists like acronyms,” joked faculty advisor Jeremy Jacquot.) 

For his project, David is aiming to create a compostable and self-heating version of the popular cup-of-noodles snack. In addition to the container being made of biodegradable material, the container will also be able to hold an exothermic chemical reaction, allowing the soup to heat up without the aid of an external heat source. David shared that disposable food packaging accounts for nearly 50 percent of the waste in the country’s landfills. 

“The idea came from my visit to the Cup of Noodle factory in Japan,” David said. “I realized how much garbage a single cup produces, from the plastic wrapping and the styrofoam cup itself. There are three components of my project: the material of the cup, the exothermic reaction used to heat up the noodles, and the noodles themselves. So far, I’ve tested a number of cup materials and found one that is the best insulator.” 

“While the science David is exploring in this project isn’t new to the field of chemistry,” Jeremy said, “what he’s trying to accomplish could be. When you think about mass produced goods, very small changes add up to a lot.” 

A Legacy of Global Citizens
Joey cared deeply about the world and approached the world with a design thinking mindset. This spirit is very much still with Nueva students.

“As a student at Nueva, I have learned the responsibility that each and every one of us shares as global citizens of our planet,” said David. “To solve such a large problem, I am leveraging the design thinking that I have learned at Nueva to conceive and prototype potential solutions.” 

All of the projects that have been supported by the Joey Fellowship would not have been possible without the financial support the fund provides. 

“I think it’s great that there is a source of money for students to use,” Jeremy said. “Many of our students have a desire to create new things, and this has sparked so many projects designed for social good.” 

“This fellowship is a great way for students to apply what they have been learning, what they are learning, and what they will learn about design thinking and use it to create something meaningful,” Angi said. “This is truly a venue where we ask students, ‘What is your idea?’ and ‘What do you need to make it happen?’ I think it really exemplifies that you can give to the school in a way that is meaningful to you.” 

It is clear that Joey has had a tremendous impact on the Nueva community. 

“The world should be a little better because a person has lived,” Matt said, “and Joey made the world a better place.”


Click here to listen to a recording of Joey sharing what creativity means to him.

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