Big Ideas Group ties innovation, community in Cedar Rapids

Aug 7, 2013

A small group of teachers in Cedar Rapids is trying a new way to inspire students to learn, by getting them out of the classroom and working on projects with community mentors. As Iowa Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren reports, the Big Ideas Group is wrapping up a summer pilot program, and will become an option for students across the district this Fall.

To get an idea of how this works, take 12th grader McKenna Cole, who—at a weekly meeting, explains to her fellow students why she’s working with a wastewater treatment plant to test how poplar trees can filter water.

"We know it’ll clean the water so I’m going to take the plants into dormancy and see if it’ll continue to clean the water," Cole says. If so, that means a cheaper, greener alternative for taking nitrates out of wastewater, even during the winter months.

To complete her research, Cole has two community mentors—one is Scott Kleppe at the Solon Department of Public Works. He says her class project will help him out, too.

"We monitor for ammonia nitrogen, but we have no data for nitrates or nitrites, so it's beneficial to us to see what that is," Kleppe says.

The class is called the Big Ideas Group, or BIG for short. Students from all over the district come to a space for startups called Vault in downtown Cedar Rapids , on the 5th floor of the Guaranty Bank building. Students spend the vast majority of their time on projects of their own choosing. For the initial class this Fall, the Cedar Rapids School District will offer it as an elective option or capstone project for students from the district’s high schools.

Cole will get credit hours for her project this summer, but she hopes to enter her project in the Google Science Fair, too.

"I think it’s a lot of responsibility, but you kind of just get it done to make your project awesome.  Which is kind of an important reason why you need to like your project a lot, because you spend a lot of time on it," Cole said.

BIG developer Trace Pickering says community buy-in is crucial for project-based schoolwork. Most recently, he has joined the Cedar Rapids School District as associate superintendent.

"I think it’s something we’ve gotten away from over the past several decades. More government oversight has taken the place of the community making decisions. And I think we’re seeing a trend back towards people wanting to reclaim ownership of their schools, their children, and their communities," Pickering said.

Pickering and his colleague, a science teacher named Shawn Cornally, developed BIG while working for The Gazette Company, which owns the local newspaper in Cedar Rapids. For Cornally, it’s an idea that’s been percolating for years, ever since the beginning of his career as a science teacher in the Solon School District.

"I’m seeing it work… I’m seeing kids come in on a Wednesday, or going out to do an interview on a Thursday without being prompted, and that’s the kind of skill we’re trying to teach kids," Cornally said.

There are no quizzes, no tests, and few lectures at BIG. Students are graded based on the projects they do—it’s with obvious pride that Cornally boasts about what his students are doing.

"It’s like the students are powerless against the learning," Cornally said. "We have one student, he’s getting an advanced chemistry credit, building a smoker and doing analogous experiments with smoked meats, and ham and bacon. It’s like his day job this summer, it’s all he cares about."

It’s a learning model to which the district is committing funding and 3 to 4 half time teachers -- Superintendent David Benson says BIG’s nontraditional setup aligns with the state’s plans for educational reform.

"If you want to think about it in the sense of a pilot year, we’d like to submit applications for future funding, where we could serve more students and scale it up," he said.

Just how much, Benson says is too soon to tell.