At NuVu, students tackle building everything from robots to their own footwear

I don’t have kids yet, but after spending a morning at the NuVu innovation center in Cambridge, I can suddenly empathize with all the parents who feel old and clueless when they realize their teens know way more about technology than they do.

At one point, I received a brief lesson in robot construction. From an eighth-grader.

NuVu is like a school, except it’s not. By that I mean it has students (about 35 at a time) and operates during schooltime hours, but there are no classes, no subjects and no grades.

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Instead, kids spend their days working on tech projects — anything from designing a system of air gondolas that could replace the Green Line to making track-and-field shoes with interchangeable spike plates using a three-dimensional printer.

The innovative cobbler was 11th-grader Sam Ingersoll, who runs at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. He had taken a 3-D scan of his left foot, used SolidWorks software to design a custom shoe for himself, and printed a prototype with two kinds of plastic — a stiff material for the heel and a more flexible substance for the instep and toes.

I remarked that it looked a bit like a Croc, with its chunky toes. Apparently, I was the 794th person to tell Ingersoll this (give or take).

He already had started a redesign that would produce a sleeker version with hexagonal cutouts to enable additional range of motion.

“I kind of failed to take into account that when your feet are in a shoe, the toes don’t spread out all the way,” Ingersoll said.

This type of iterative process is exactly what NuVu tries to promote, largely because it’s the way real tech professionals work. It’s also radically different from most school curricula, which typically involve high-stakes tests that can be taken only once.

“There’s a direct correlation between the number of iterations and the quality of the final piece,” said NuVu founder Saeed Arida. “Usually, in school, you are assessed based on what you know. Here, you are assessed on your work ethic. I don’t care if you don’t know anything, as long as you are engaged in the process and make something at the end.”

Students typically spend one trimester at NuVu, during which they work in small teams on a series of short-term projects. Doctoral candidates from MIT often serve as coaches, spending two weeks with the kids as they tackle challenges related to the candidates’ thesis subjects.

At about $6,000 per student, NuVu isn’t cheap. But the skills kids develop there are so valuable that one school, Beaver Country Day, now aims to send almost every student to NuVu before graduation.

“Students love the program and when they come back to Beaver they bring such a different perspective,” said Lisa Trask, Beaver’s director of strategic marketing. “For some students, it totally changes how they approach problem solving.”