Johnson County officials bring the Iowa BIG program to Iowa City schools


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A project-based education initiative is expanding from its roots in Cedar Rapids to area schools in Johnson County. Iowa BIG was created to explore educational options other than classroom “textbook-focused” settings deemed necessary for every student to be successful.

Iowa BIG representatives, along with Iowa City School District officials, described the importance of the program’s community engagement at a joint roundtable event held by the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday at the Coralville Marriott Hotel. “Education shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all system,” said Ann Feldmann, the assistant superintendent for the School District. “Creating options for kids, rather than just focusing on one, creates a better learning environment for all kinds of students.”

She said Johnson County would soon adopt the Iowa BIG program beginning the fall of 2015 in a new building. The facility — known as the Kirkwood Regional Center — is under construction at the University of Iowa’s Oakdale Campus.

The center will connect Kirkwood Community College, the UI, K-12 school districts, and industry partners in Johnson County to strategically align projects aimed at creating viable and competitive relationships outside the classroom. For example, if student enroll in an English class, they may spend their time planning a lecture or creating marketing proposals for local businesses while earning school credit.

“I think letting student interest drive the curriculum, combined with authentic learning and student interaction in the community, is a fantastic concept that Iowa BIG explores,” Feldmann said. School districts in Iowa City, West Branch, Solon, Regina Catholic, and Tipton will participate in the program.

Nancy Quellhorst, the president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, said joint roundtable meetings occur twice a year and combine the Coralville, Iowa City, and North Liberty areas. She said the purpose of roundtables is to have locals expand their networks by building close relationships with other community members.

The joint roundtable featured speakers to talk about important education initiatives being introduced to the areas. “We are so very fortunate to have such strong education initiatives taking place in this area and how effective our districts are about communicating and sharing our successes,” Quellhorst said.

Students at Iowa BIG earn required and elective credit while working on community-based projects — which look identical to traditional courses on transcripts. “Traditional school systems don’t reach and engage with every student in the same way,” said Shawn Cornally, a cofounder of Iowa BIG and speaker at the event.

Cornally said he and Trace Pickering, the other Iowa BIG cofounder, have attempted to created a schooling model that works more effectively by letting the students choose what they want to do and also helps solve the problems of local businesses. “In Iowa, every single business has an idea that falls just below their resource line,” Cornally said. “And we have thousands of students jumping at the thought of working with these businesses to help solve their local problems.”

Pickering, the Cedar Rapids School District superintendent, was also a speaker at the event. He said the program focuses on steering away from de-conceptualized learning — which offers students information without providing real-world importance or depth. He said Iowa BIG is driven by student passion, built on authentic business and community projects, anchored in the community, and based on competency.

“We don’t just want to transform the educational platform,” he said. “But to recognize the potential of all our students, and economic endeavors of the community.”

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