Beyond the Diploma

Beyond the Diploma

How Iowa BIG alumni take project-based learning into college and career.

When she was in high school, Elizabeth McDermott’s schedule was packed with AP courses, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities. But it was her time at Iowa BIG, she said, that helped chart her future.

“I learned what my passions are, but I also learned simple things that turned out to be crucial: teamwork, communication, how to write an email, how to talk to people in authority, knowing when to take charge,” she said. “It made all the difference when I got to college. Even though there are students here from the best high schools in the country, I’ve never felt behind.”

McDermott, now 18 and a freshman at Boston College, credits Iowa BIG with giving her the self-confidence and skills to succeed in college. The project she completed — creating a high school curriculum about the global refugee crisis — sparked a deep interest in human rights, one that she plans to pursue as a career.

Seeing Ideas Become Reality

Launched in 2013, Iowa BIG is an XQ high school program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in which students leave their regular schools for part of the day and gather at the Iowa BIG campus to work on projects that improve their community. Working in teams, students pitch ideas, conduct research, and work closely with teachers, business owners, nonprofit leaders, and community members to see their ideas become reality. In the process, students learn real-world applications for the subjects they’re learning in school, and, as the Iowa BIG website puts it, “lead their own learning journey and discover their gifts, talents, and interests.”

Iowa BIG executive director and founder Trace Pickering said that preparing students for life after high school, and inspiring them to pursue their passions, is the core ethos of the program. Not only will students gain practical skills and self-confidence, but they’ll bring valuable skills to the workforce, which benefits both the students and employers.

Making an Impact, Making a Difference

“At Iowa BIG, we provide our learners with real projects, clients, and deliverables that make an impact and a difference for our businesses and community,” he said. “These real contexts provide learners the opportunity to not only practice and hone those critical ‘soft skills’ but also to see how important they are to be successful. They also see how the content and standards they are learning actually manifest in real work.”

A Focus on the Global Refugee Crisis

McDermott and her team decided to focus on the refugee crisis after hearing the story of one of their teammates, Frank Manzi, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Frank and his family had spent 11 years in refugee camps before settling in Iowa.

Working with an education nonprofit called Rock Your World, McDermott and her team gathered, researched and wrote a high school curriculum about the global refugee crisis. It covers topics like the difference between an immigrant and a refugee, the root causes of displacement, and the stories of individual refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria, Honduras, Indonesia, and other countries.

Using Ted Talks, articles, documentaries, handouts and other sources — including resources from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees — the four-part curriculum is intended to be used in civics classes, after-school programs, and extracurricular clubs.

The finished product was launched on Rock Your World in June 2018, where it’s available free to students and teachers around the world.

Changing the World with Higher Learning

“We really believed in this higher power of learning to change the world,” McDermott said. “It was so amazing to see it finally launch. After all our work, all that frustration — we were afraid it would be a year’s worth of work in vain. And then to see it was just incredible. It was like, ‘We did that! Six high schoolers did that!’”

Reaching New Heights of Success

McDermott has decided to major in international studies and communications at Boston College, and pursue the Peace Corps or a Fulbright scholarship after graduation. Meanwhile, she’s volunteering as a mentor for a youth nonprofit called Strong Women Strong Girls, and interning for an on-campus school that works with children with complex medical needs.

McDermott’s experience at Iowa BIG was not unique, Pickering said. Many program alumni report similar success stories from college and career. Jemar Lee, another Iowa BIG graduate, went from being a struggling student in middle school to a thriving high schooler thanks to Iowa BIG, and is now taking a year off from his studies to advocate for student-centered learning through Education Reimagined. He’s spoken at conferences throughout the country about the benefits of programs like Iowa BIG.

After just one year in the program, “my skills in architecture, public communications, and overall professionalism have grown beyond what I thought was possible,” he wrote. “Through my new academic experiences, I have learned brand new things about myself, others, and life in general. … I want to give an enormous thank you to Iowa BIG for keeping their faith in me. You all have helped me reach new heights of success and happiness I would never have been able to otherwise.”

McDermott is not sure where her path will eventually lead her, but she knows the leadership, collaboration, and activist skills she learned at Iowa BIG will propel her along her journey.

“As my Iowa BIG teachers used to always say,” she said, “project-based learning doesn’t stop in high school.”

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