Iowa BIG is a collaborative high school program operating among several school districts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Students choose from a pool of “initiatives” suggested by community partners or based on their own interests to address authentic problems and develop real solutions while earning core academic credits.
How They Came to Be
Iowa BIG’s Super School Origin Story
Iowa BIG has been a true community partnership since its inception. After a catastrophic flood in 2008, the people of Cedar Rapids came together to rebuild and reimagine their city. As part of that effort, local educators convened a series of conversations about the future of education. They started with research: nearly 60 adults went “back to school” for a day to get an up-close look at learning. The experience was dispiriting. The visitors found themselves bored and disengaged—and students were, too. Together, they created a vision for Iowa BIG, and by 2013 it was a reality. Iowa BIG continues to live up to its earliest principles: student passion, real-world projects, and community networking. In 2021, Iowa BIG had 128 graduates in its senior class.
Students come to Iowa BIG from high schools across the Cedar Rapids region to take part in its forward-thinking program of collaborative problem-solving, in which students work together in teams to find solutions to our world’s problems. The projects are tied to rigorous academic standards that prepare students to succeed, while also improving their community and building crucial skills like collaboration and leadership. The challenges are real, brought forth by local businesses, nonprofits, and government partners with a real challenge that students could help solve. Students spend 50-90% of their time at Iowa BIG or out in the community working on their projects, and the rest of the time at their home high schools.
Iowa BIG Design Features
1.Experiential learning that meets rigorous standards
Iowa BIG places a high value on experiential and contextualized learning—learning that can be applied to many different contexts, not just separated out by subjects and lessons. This means Iowa BIG focuses on meaningful and relevant experiences that allow students to learn academic content in a real-world context instead of through traditional means. Students simultaneously master and apply academic knowledge and skills while tackling authentic community needs and learning important business approaches like the Agile Mindset. These needs come in the form of “initiatives” that are generated by community partners or by students themselves that must meet several criteria: address authentic local needs, support interdisciplinary learning, and be rigorously co-designed by students, teachers, and partners to meet Iowa state standards. Because Iowa BIG is a fully competency-based environment, each learner’s individual academic progress is carefully tracked and holistically assessed throughout each initiative.
Hi, I’m Autumn. Class of 2019.
“My job working in a pharmacy inspired me to start a project addressing teen opioid addiction. I wanted to know if there was a way addicted teens could ask for help at school. Our team researched school handbooks around the country and we couldn’t find a single example. Working with a local addiction rehabilitation center, we drafted a new policy to present to our local school board. Now that I’ve graduated, another student is leading this project and a new team through its completion.”
2.Driven by student passion
When a student comes to Iowa BIG, the first question they are asked is, “What are you passionate about?” Most struggle with this question, but it's the cornerstone of every student's experience at Iowa BIG. By honoring student passion, Iowa BIG’s staff empowers students to cultivate their own agency and engagements which drives their intrinsic motivation. Students have true ownership over their own learning and where, how, and when it happens, beyond just managing time. With students in the driver’s seat, teachers serve as coaches, guides, and content experts. They find out what the student wants and then point them toward the right resources and support.
“I believe that teenagers are our most underutilized resource. To witness the energy that a group of passionate students can build toward a common goal in an unrestrictive environment is inspirational and, at times, jaw-dropping.”
3.Making real contributions as they learn
Students add value to their community while they learn. Local partners see the value, smarts, and ambition students bring to the table, and students see the resources and opportunities that surround them in their own hometown. The challenges they take on range from advising city officials on how to improve their use of social media, creating a dance therapy curriculum to promote inclusion for people with special needs, investigating the use of drones for agriculture, to drafting a plan to redevelop an abandoned meatpacking property for recreation, to researching local water quality. Iowa BIG students worked with the Catherine McAuley Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant and refugee families, to create a 20-plot garden for people who miss growing their own food. The value students bring is clear—demand from partners is now so great that Iowa BIG can select only the very best projects.
Hi, I’m Caitie. Class of 2019.
“Last year, I led the completion of a partner project with Camp Courageous to provide people with disabilities an outdoor space to enjoy nature safely and meaningfully. Our student team researched ADA compliance, designed the spaces, pitched our ideas, raised over $17,000, and even incorporated solar technology. Campers can now enjoy an ADA compliant concrete path and raised garden beds containing fruit-bearing perennials to pick, eat, and share.”
4.A source for inspiration and innovation
As a partnership among several school districts, this transformational learning system connects young people more deeply to the community and its institutions, while also opening up rigorous, real-world learning for students across the metropolitan region. The community sees young people as assets, and young people see themselves as meaningful contributors to their hometown and the world. Students and districts learn from Iowa BIG’s innovative approach to assessment, real-world learning, and community engagement. Students from other districts can join, too, and their districts pay tuition. The model has great promise and can serve as inspiration for districts across the country looking to pool local resources, provide students with deep and inspiring learning opportunities, and dissolve barriers between communities and their high schools.
Executive Director and Co-Founder
“We see Iowa BIG as a way to bring to life possibilities for the community that they want but don’t yet see.”
Theory Into Action
Student work: A placemaking partnership
The placemaking project is a partnership between Iowa BIG and the Czech Village / New Bohemia Main Street District in Cedar Rapids. The goal for the students involved in the project was to create a placemaking object that incorporated Czech history and created a place for young people to gather. After research and brainstorming, the students decided to design, create, and present a plan for benches that resembled kolache, a traditional Czech pastry. After designing prototypes and presentations, students met with local businesses about serving as a site for their benches, with the goal of having them funded and installed throughout Cedar Rapids Czech Village and at the Czech Museum.
Iowa BIG Competencies Met:
- Critical thinking
State Standards Met:
- U.S. History: Analyze human population movement and patterns and analyze change, continuity, and context
- Government: Iowa state history
- English: Reading literature, speaking and listening, sources of evidence, writing, reading non-fiction, audience, and language acquisition
STEM Teacher and Co-Founder
“As a teacher in this system, I can’t believe that I get to coach kids on how to manage their time, space, and all the things we all agree are really important for high school students to learn.”
- 0.0%Native American/Indigenous
- 0.0%Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
- 0.0%Any other Ethnicity
- 1.9%More than one ethnicity
- 2.9%504 Plan
- 1.9%English Language Learners
What better way to understand what Iowa BIG means to students than by asking them! Check out what these Iowa BIG graduates had to say about their experience.
- Finding Resiliency: Students Open up About Gun Violence
- Redefining Failure to Embrace Student Learning
- The Community is the Classroom – Now What?