What is Iowa BIG?

We believe that educational options are necessary for every student to be successful. We must provide students with as many contextually-rich experiences as possible so they not only develop basic skills, but, more importantly, they can competently use those skills to solve real problems and make new things happen.

What We Believe About Teaching, Learning & Human Development

Iowa BIG

As we built Iowa BIG, we saw thousands of students whose abilities and interests were either fostered or ignored, depending on how well they fit into the model known as “traditional” or  “comprehensive” high school.

Over the past 130 years, the implicit assumption about school is that this model is the only or best way to educate. Iowa’s Creative Corridor values a plurality of models, as does Iowa BIG.

Iowa BIG focuses on developing our students’ 21st century skills (called the Universal Constructs in the Iowa Common Core) as well as the Common Core standards they are responsible for in the courses they choose to enroll in at BIG.

The Iowa BIG pedagogy centers on the following tenets:

Ava Ague - Iowa BIG

1. The student must choose and care about the project.

Iowa BIG employs a project pool that is custom generated for us by our community. These projects come from the real needs of businesses, non-profits, and government agencies. Students are free to choose projects they are passionate about or interested in. Students and faculty also pitch projects into the pool, which are then partnered with our community. As such, we have “inbound” and “outbound” projects; inbound are pitched to Iowa BIG by our community and outbound are pitched to the community by the students.

2. The project must be interdisciplinary and nuanced.

All projects at Iowa BIG must cover material and require understanding of standards from multiple traditional courses and subjects. This ensures the efficiency of our model and that our projects are never “made up” to satisfy a singular subject or course.

Lane Swartzendruber
Bernard Dutchik

3. The project must have a participatory 3rd party audience.

This is the hardest and most important core value of Iowa BIG and what truly separates our model from other educational systems. If we can’t identify an audience outside of the school walls willing to participate, assess, and mentor the project, we don’t do it. This goes beyond having an evening where students show off their work or having a professional Skype in for a class period. Our partners fully integrate with our students as they work on authentic, contextually-rich projects.

4. The project is not the assessment.

Projects are simply vehicles for students to practice, demonstrate, and learn the standards and 21st century skills we wish them to acquire. Projects often fail or end prematurely, just like projects in the real world because they are projects from the real world. Students are assessed on the learning they acquire and the work they conduct on their project work.

Leah Ahlers
Iowa BIG Students

5. Students are engaged in seminars, like college.

We recognize that projects are not going to allow a student to demonstrate all the standards in a particular course. We also recognize that not all standards (literature, Algebra II as examples) appear in most or all authentic projects. Seminars ensure that students are given the opportunity to learn these standards that their projects simply won’t hit. We tailor seminars like a college course; classes aren’t every day and students are expected to do a lot of learning and exploration in between sessions.

Iowa BIG's Impact Over the Years


At Iowa BIG we have taken on the traditional notions of time, space, curriculum, and assessment and redesigned them to better match both the world our students are about to face and to place the ownership of these things squarely on them, the arbiter of their own learning.

In traditional schools, where the primary paradigm is “school-centered,” time, space, curriculum, and assessment are all controlled and managed by the adults. Students are told when to be where and for what. Then, when there, they are taken through a curriculum that’s organized, led and taught by a teacher who also either creates the assessment or uses an assessment developed by the school or state. Seldom is there a place for a student to take ownership of any of these and to learn how to navigate them successfully.

At BIG, we specifically design the experience in order to release responsibility for time, space, assessment and curriculum to the student. Managing a Google calendar with appointments, meetings and work time; learning about the most effective places for them to work, think, and play; learning about and working with the standards they are responsible for and seeing how they can be learned and demonstrated within their projects, and; working in conjunction with their teachers to learn how to assess themselves and make steps towards ongoing improvement.

Human Development

BIG staff constantly read, learn about and discuss current and emerging neuroscience and use that information to adjust and tailor their work, ensuring students have the best possible chance to grow and develop.

From the nuances of improving executive function and how the brain learns and retains information to the type of culture and environment needed for learning and self-discovery to flourish, Iowa BIG staff is relentlessly pursuing and putting into action the research from this cutting-edge, scientific field.

Iowa BIG Student
Iowa BIG Collaboration

How We Support Our Partner School Districts

While the Iowa BIG model is a major deviation from a comprehensive high school, it doesn’t mean we act as separate or in competition. Our local high schools are filled with dedicated and talented teachers and administrators who recognize that our students need as many options as possible so that they can find the right combination for them.

Students at BIG remain important members and contributors to their high schools and the BIG experience is designed to enhance the student experience, not replace it. We are successful when BIG students become stronger students back at their high schools and when successful high school students get even stronger.

Since BIG is a smaller program, we have the ability to test theories and practices more quickly and with less disruption. This serves as a testing ground for our high schools as they continue to expand their options and opportunities for kids.

How You Can Help Iowa BIG


First and foremost, we are always in need of great projects for our kids to engage in. Secondarily, we are always looking for in-kind and financial support to continue to provide our students and community with this world-renowned educational program.