The music is rocking, paintbrushes are damp with fresh colors, and groups of chairs are huddled in circles ready for bug-list meetings. This scene is playing out in three North Iowa communities as Iowa BIG North, a new initiative uniting businesses and students, begins to take shape.
The program is new to four school districts in North Iowa, but the concept is a successful venture from eastern Iowa where two school districts, Cedar Rapids Community School District and College Community School District, formed the original Iowa BIG.
Thirty junior and senior students from three school districts involved in the Iowa BIG program and are offered an opportunity to invest their afternoons in ventures uniting students and area businesses. In this new program, students’ passion is what will dictate the curriculum and learning. The students are tasked with developing solutions to authentic needs. Fundamentally it includes service to others and utilizing interdisciplinary knowledge from across multiple subject areas for area businesses who are lining up to get involved with the program.
In excess of 30 businesses have indicated their desire to work with the Iowa BIG North students to accomplish community and business’s goals, but the choice lies with the student teams if they will pick up and run with the projects. Each student is responsible for participating in a minimum of two initiatives, and with more business partners than students, local businesses are in competition for Iowa BIG North students. Students are also developing “bug-lists” for endeavors today or in the future. These lists are what “bug” students after they’ve gone home for the day and the community challenges students are trying to solve in their heads.
Already toward the top of the interest list for initiatives includes designing an energy efficient smart home in Osage, developing credit score curriculum in Charles City, educational facility updates in New Hampton, and attracting and retaining health care employees across all of North Iowa. Students will finalize their big ideas passions this month, and begin meeting with their business coordinators and tackle the endeavors with everything they have time for and as their passion drives them.
If the beginning preparations are any indication, student time is not a hindering factor. Students are developing each of their Iowa BIG North locations into what they want it to be with the available resources. Furniture, paint, and resources have been scrounged up from various locations. Students, of their own accord, already are working well past school hours and on weekends in order to accomplish their self-set goals and deadlines. Adult facilitators note the ownership and pride the students are taking in their areas. In Charles City, the former art room at 500 N. Grand is being renovated into community space for Iowa BIG North. The third floor of the Osage Municipal Light & Power building is being dedicated to student use, and New Hampton has a Main Street office that is already seeing community walk-in traffic.
Even though there are three locations, involving the partner school districts, the emphasis isn’t on any one location but the benefits the entire Iowa BIG North team will bring to the entire area. Students from all three districts may take on working to solve a specific community dilemma. This isn’t multiple schools working individually; it’s Iowa BIG North together, as a team, coming up with solutions.
Local businesses with engaging projects are encouraged to seek out more information about Iowa BIG North including attending a partner-palooza where business talk or pitch projects in order to ignite student passion. There is one more meeting in September where businesses can get involved with Iowa BIG North. Local entrepreneurs have been involved with this project from day one sponsoring the STEM BEST grant application from which this project developed. STEM curriculum is designed around increasing student knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to prepare them for the plethora of jobs available in these fields. BEST efforts encourage education and entrepreneurial collaboration where businesses engage students and teacher.
In October 2015 the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council awarded a STEM BEST grant in the amount of $25,000 to Charles City Community School District, New Hampton Community School District, Osage Community School District and Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock Community School District. The Iowa BIG North project is another STEM BEST program that is being added to the curriculum of the partner schools. The funding has allowed the collective launch of the Iowa BIG North regional consortium that enhances the ways schools and businesses partner together for the benefit of student learning.