Cedar Rapids exploratory program provides project-based learning for high school students

Photo courtesy of Iowa BIG
Photo courtesy of Iowa BIG

Imagine the countless hours spent in high school classrooms: blackboards, textbooks, lesson plans. Now imagine if you could spend half of that typical day in real-world offices, solving real-world problems.

That’s exactly what the students in the Iowa BIG program get to do every school year.

Iowa BIG began as a collaborative effort between area business leaders and the Cedar Rapids Gazette Companies to begin to reimagine the typical approach to education. Its pilot kicked off in 2013, with fewer than 20 students from the Mt. Vernon, Cedar Rapids, College Community and Linn-Mar school districts. But it has grown in big ways, with the 2016-2017 class attracting around 130 students.

“Iowa BIG is about slowing the brain drain,” said Troy Miller, director of strategic partnerships at Iowa BIG, adding that over a century of standard education practices may need an update to keep students engaged.

With the program, high school students can spend half their school day with Iowa BIG, working on initiatives chosen from a project pool at the beginning of the year. The program has three core tenets: Students must be passionate about the project, projects must be interdisciplinary and cross multiple courses and each project must have an audience, which is why Miller’s role is so vital — he partners the students with local business leaders.

“I enjoyed working on a real-world issue with teachers that had a passion for helping students unlock their potential,” said former Iowa BIG student Kyle Scheer, who is applying what he learned as a paid intern in data analytics at Van Meter Inc. “It’s made my education more exciting, more in-depth and more diverse.”

Scheer said that one of BIG’s major benefits is its ability to open doors to the world to provided opportunities to make a difference. Some day, he said, he’ll return to Cedar Rapids to start a family. “We’ll use our experiences and learning to try and make Cedar Rapids an even better place for our kids to grow up in,” Scheer said.

But for now, its students are focused on solving problems here at home.

Prairie High graduate Kinzie Farmer focused her 2013 initiative on improving the self-esteem of women through her now-established brand, Success to the Power of She. With her initiative, Farmer helped run successful social media campaigns and coordinate a 2014 Cedar Rapids women’s conference with 150 attendees and guest speakers including University of Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder and Iowa Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

In 2014, high school sophomore Abby Murdock began perusing information about the adverse childhood experiences study, or ACEs. ACEs is a test that focuses on physical, emotional and sexual traumas in childhood, as they correlate to struggles in adulthood, including health issues, violence, economic hardship and substance abuse.

Since the project began, 30 students have joined Murdock in the ACEs initiative; as a senior this fall, Murdock will continue leading the team. “[The students] attended conferences for school counselors and teachers; they traveled the state sharing their message,” Miller said, adding that some teachers and counselors knew little about ACEs initially.

Aren Buresh, a recent Kennedy High graduate and former Iowa BIG student, discovered her love of marketing and creative storytelling through the program.


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“I had a chance to have my writing published on community-wide platforms. My writing, for the first time, had a real, authentic audience,” Buresh said, adding that she’s using what she learned at BIG as an intern for Flow Media, a creative marketing company.

While Miller said the class sizes get bigger every year, Iowa BIG has only impacted about two percent of the students at partner high schools.

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” said Miller.

But at the end of every school year, the initiatives that the students drive forward and into their community never cease to amaze him or the other BIG faculty.

“High school kids can do a whole lot more than we give them credit for.”

Erin Tiesman is a content strategist and writer in Cedar Rapids. When she’s not living all things content, you’ll find her running, reading or listening to the Beatles. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 204.

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