The Iowa BIG Model

Animation Overview of Iowa BIG –  Created by Iowa BIG teacher Shawn Cornally (2014)

Iowa BIG is a public school with no admissions requirements – students and families only need to want a different learning experience. Each partnering district is a full “owner” of Iowa BIG and shares in both the costs and the benefits. Students enroll in core and elective courses offered through BIG at their high school and courses are fully accredited and “count” on a student’s transcript. BIG continually strives to serve an accurate cross section of our partner districts’ demographics.

Currently, Iowa BIG is a partnership of the Cedar Rapids, College, and Linn Mar Community School Districts. Students from these districts pay no tuition, and our teaching staff is employed by these three organizations.

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.

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 singular logistical model known as traditional or a comprehensive high school. Most public schools subscribe to and many communities assume that 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 student’s 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.

Students attend BIG from 50-90% of their day with most choosing the 50% option. BIG does not currently offer the full slate of courses found in our traditional high schools. This model allows our students to be vested members of their high school community and take advantage of all the privileges that entails from sports, to fine arts, to social events, to specialized courses and classes.

The Iowa BIG pedagogy centers on the following tenets:


  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 and are translated into “teenager” by our faculty. 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 by our students to the community.
  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 never become solely “problems from the back of the book.”
  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.
    Each student at BIG is required to select and engage with two projects at any given time. At periodic intervals students may choose to switch projects if they find they don’t have an interest or passion. Projects, because they are real, do not adhere nicely to the school year calendar and, as they complete or end, students move on to their next project.

The most important thing to note about an Iowa BIG project is that 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. Student are assessed on the learning they acquire and the work they conduct on their project work.

In addition to their two projects, students are enrolled in a series of seminars tied to the courses they are taking. We recognize that not all projects are 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 are designed to ensure that students are given the opportunity to learn these standards that their projects simply won’t hit.

Time, Space, Curriculum, & Assessment


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 the face and to place the ownership of these things squarely on them, the learner.

In traditional schools, where the primary paradigm is “school-centered” time, space, curriculum, and assessment are all controlled by and managed by the adults. Students are told when to be where, for what and then, when there, are taken through a curriculum organized, led and taught by a teacher who also either creates the assessment or uses an assessment developed by the school or state. Nowhere in here 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 on-going improvement.

A Week in the Life of a BIG Student


A student’s week at BIG looks significantly different from their schedules at traditional school. Here is a run-down of what a student is accountable for scheduling and managing in a week’s time:


Student takes 3 periods a day at BIG taking 3-4 “courses.” With some travel time accounted for, this means most students have about 2 hours per day available for engagement with BIG – or 10 hours per week.
Each student must be on two projects at any point in time. Students may take on more projects with approval from the teaching team.

Each project has 2-3 meetings per week

Project Team Meeting
This is where the team meets and, using the practice of Modern Agile, discusses work accomplished the week prior, prioritizing “what’s next,” and assigning tasks and work for the next week.

Work Session
This is dedicated time the team meets each week to work on tasks and help and support one another in learning and doing.

Whiteboard Session
This meeting is optional week-to-week. This is time dedicated expressly for learning. The team or the teacher typically asks for this meeting to cover a specific topic of learning needed for the team to continue to learn and advance. (e.g. “In order to move forward, we have to understand what effective research looks like in this field.” or “We need to understand the calculations necessary to deal with the survey data we received.”)

Students will have 1-3 seminars per week based upon the courses they are taking. Students must continue in seminars until they have validated that they have met the standard. Seminars typically run 30-60 minutes at intervals of once a week to once every two weeks.

One-on-Ones/Teacher Time
Periodically and as-needed, students have 1:1 meetings with their teachers. We ask that students spend at least one hour per week in the BIG space for socialization and connection.

Project A Team MeetingStats SeminarProject A Work SessionProject B WhiteboardEnglish Seminar
Personal Work TimeProject Team A White BoardProject Team B MeetingProject B Work SessionGovernment Seminar

Iowa BIG  |  Story from XQ
Video by XQ America