Unleashing human potential using a student-driven, project-based approach.

Serving four high schools in two districts, Iowa BIG is a collaborative high school program in downtown Cedar Rapids where more than 100 students choose projects that partner deeply with their community. Iowa BIG was born out of a community-wide initiative to rebuild and reimagine Cedar Rapids following a catastrophic flood in 2008. As part of this process, residents looked at their schools and realized they wanted a more engaging educational experience for their students. BIG launched in 2013 in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids School District and the nearby College Community School District, expanding its reach after becoming an XQ Super School in 2016.

Students typically join the BIG community in 11th or 12th grade and earn credits in English, social studies, and business. While most students at BIG spend about half their time continuing to take courses in their home high schools, their experience at BIG is transformative by focusing on five major tenets:

  1. Students choose or pitch projects they care about
  2. Projects are interdisciplinary 
  3. Projects must have an outside, community or industry partner
  4. The success of a project is not what determines a grade; rather, the students work to achieve mastery
  5. Learning also includes seminars, like college

Student projects create a real impact on community members and the local environment. They range from advising city officials on improving their use of social media to creating a dance therapy curriculum to promote inclusion for people with special needs. Students have also investigated the use of drones for agriculture, drafted plans to redevelop an abandoned meatpacking property for recreation, and researched local water quality for residents. Iowa BIG’s partnership with neighboring school districts is uniquely generous. The districts provide teachers and support BIG financially, covering part of the rent, the director’s salary, and equipment expenses. 

Iowa BIG’s first magnet high school, City View, opened in 2023. Unlike BIG, it’s a school, not a program. And because it’s for grades 9-12, educators give students more guidance in their early years until they become more independent in project-based learning.

“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.”

Becky Herman


“It made me realize how much of a difference I can make. If I am determined enough and passionate enough to get something done, I can do it.”


Class of 2022

Design Principles in Action

Learn Iowa BIG applies these XQ Design Principles to sustain student success:

Design Principles in Action

Strong mission and culture

Iowa BIG’s educators believe that for students to be successful, they must be able to learn new skills and use them to solve real-world problems. At Iowa BIG, the community is the classroom, where local partners are key stakeholders in helping students grow and succeed. “We see Iowa BIG as a way to bring to life possibilities for the community that they want but don’t yet see,” said Trace Pickering, BIG’s co-founder and former executive director. 

Meaningful, engaged learning

Projects at Iowa BIG provide meaningful and relevant experiences where students learn academic content in an authentic context beyond traditional classroom settings. Because Iowa BIG is a fully competency-based environment, each learner’s academic progress is carefully tracked and holistically assessed throughout each initiative. Assessments focus on the critical skills students learn during a project, regardless of whether the project meets all its goals. 

Circuit Board

Caring, trusting relationships

Teachers play dynamic roles at BIG, serving as coaches, guides, and content experts—establishing trust and high expectations for their students. They listen to students and then point them toward the right resources. On a 2022 Social-Emotional Learning survey, 96 percent of Iowa BIG students said they have an adult at school they trust, and 70 percent felt a sense of belonging at school. 

Youth voice and choice

Iowa BIG is a student-centered school where students choose and pitch their projects. Students are empowered to focus on their passions and truly own their learning—when, where, and how it happens. A student who worked in a pharmacy decided to start a project addressing teen opioid addiction. After working with a local addiction rehabilitation center, she and her peers drafted a new policy to present to the local school board. 

A source for inspiration and innovation

Smart use of time, space, and tech

Educators and leaders at Iowa BIG designed student learning experiences to “release responsibility for time, space, assessment, and curriculum to the student.” Each student manages a Google calendar with appointments, meetings, and work time. Projects can touch upon state standards in many ways. For subject matter that doesn’t appear authentically (for example, literature and Algebra II), teachers offer seminars for students to learn the standards not directly touched. 

Community partnerships

All Iowa BIG projects must have an outside partner willing to participate, assess, and mentor the project. In one case, students partnered with the Catherine McAuley Center to create a 20-plot garden for refugees who missed growing their food. The students assembled presentations for the Hiawatha City Council northwest of Cedar Rapids, handled the paperwork, and received help from a nonprofit to till the land. Members of the Class of 2022 also responded to a devastating storm that hit the Cedar Rapids region in August 2020 and destroyed up to 70 percent of the local tree canopy. Students contracted with local chainsaw artists to turn fallen wood into sculptures for a week. They auctioned the work for Trees Forever, a public-private partnership dedicated to “re-leafing” the damaged tree canopy. Over the three-month project, called Splinters, students had to engage and organize artists for the carving effort, obtain permits from the city government, generate publicity through the local media, and execute the sculpture auction. By the end, Splinters had raised $25,000, nearly four times the students’ original goal of $6,000. Sixty percent of the funds went to Trees Forever, and the rest to pay the local artists for their time and skill.

Student Outcomes

Because BIG’s students remain officially enrolled in their home high schools, the state does not report data on them separately. However, Iowa BIG’s leaders were able to share ACT scores for 21 BIG students who graduated in 2022 from Cedar Rapids High School and XQ analyzed this data in comparison with ACT’s 2022 data

Those students had an average ACT score of about 22 compared with a statewide average of about 21 and just under 20 nationally.

In XQ’s survey of the Class of 2022, an overwhelming 97 percent of graduates reported feeling at least somewhat prepared for the future, including nine in ten saying Iowa BIG helped them develop collaboration skills that will serve them well as adults. When asked what strengths they had developed in high school that made them feel prepared, 92 percent pointed to “collaboration [and] working in groups”—a big testament to BIG’s highly collaborative, project-based learning model.

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