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Iowa BIG North: Passion in education


  • Students Tait Arndt, Olivia Wolfe and McKenna Oleson video-chat with Iowa BIG North partners in other area school districts this week. The Iowa BIG North program is into its third year. (Press photo James Grob.)

By James Grob,

What exactly is Iowa BIG North?

It’s in its third year, but the school program still draws questions.

Essentially, it’s a coalition of students from seven regional high schools who are pushed to make connections with at least two businesses that each have a problem to solve.

Sometimes it’s a marketing problem, or something that needs development, like an app. Sometimes it’s something else entirely. Then, teams of two or more students dedicate a semester to finding a solution to the chosen problems.

To facilitator Donna Forsyth and the students involved, it’s also a whole lot more than that.

“I’ve been in education a long time, and it is by far the most amazing educational opportunity I’ve ever been involved in,” said Forsyth, who also teaches biology and life sciences at Charles City High School and has been teaching for more than 30 years.

Charles City junior McKenna Oleson said Iowa BIG North is about passion.

“It’s all passion-led,” she said. “You’re not going to be doing anything that you’re not interested in. I’m going to be doing things that I’m really passionate about, so it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like you’re doing things you love, in a business environment.”

Oleson said that it was the fact the Forsyth was a facilitator that initially piqued her interest in Iowa Big North. She also saw friends have success in the program, and that helped her realize it was a good opportunity for her.

In 2016, the Charles City, New Hampton, Osage and Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock school districts were awarded a $25,000 grant to launch Iowa BIG North, which was inspired by Iowa BIG in Cedar Rapids. BIG is an acronym for “Big Ideas Group.”

Student participants collaborate on solutions to problems they identify themselves or that are brought to them by the community and businesses.

Since then, the Turkey Valley, North Butler and Riceville school districts have been added to the team, in part due to an additional STEM BEST Partnerships grant the program received. The districts share resources to offer an educational experience centered on student-passion, student-led, problem-based and authentic learning.

It all started when Forsyth went to a week of immersion training four years ago in Cedar Rapids to learn about Iowa BIG, the program that Iowa BIG North emulated here.

“I went because I love to learn with education. I want to be a forward-thinking teacher,” she said. “By noon on Monday, I was in amazement, with the empowerment, with the engagement, with the leadership of those teams.”

Forsyth decided then and there that this was something that was needed in Charles City.

“What I saw those students doing — the conversations that I saw — I had never seen before in education,” Forsyth said. “When I came back I was so excited. I didn’t know how we were going to make this happen in rural Iowa, but I knew we were going to have to figure it out.”

The program is now into its third year, and 24 students from Charles City are involved.

“It’s totally student-driven,” Forsyth said. “It’s very similar to the way businesses are run. It’s a roundtable conversation once a week to see what was completed, how are we moving our industry forward, what new tasks need to be done. Sometimes our community members are at that meeting. Every team has a team meeting every week. That’s a requirement, to move the project forward.”

On top of the time each day is spent at Iowa BIG North, each of the students said they spent one to three additional hours outside the school day working on Iowa Big North tasks.

“A lot is expected of you when you come down here, because you’re treated like an adult,” said Charles City senior Olivia Wolfe. She said that in a typical high school classroom students are constantly told what to do, so often when they’re out of school they aren’t self-directed.

“We’re basically taking charge of our own education,” she said. “You don’t have to be a straight-A student, you don’t have to be super confident, you don’t have to be a star athlete or popular,” Wolfe said. “You just have to have something that you care about, and everyone does. All you need is drive, to be a part of this program.”

Junior Tait Arndt said that he became interested in Iowa BIG North when he saw how much his older brother, Theo, got out of it.

“He presented to the governor last year, about Iowa BIG North and what it’s all about,” Arndt said. “That just impressed me so much. I saw all the opportunities and I just wanted to be involved with it. It’s not typical school, you get a lot more opportunities. We have a bunch of initiatives with our business partners, and you do what you’re passionate about.”

One example of a successful initiative was last year, when Sue Ayers of Chautauqua Guest Homes in Charles City approached the students with a real problem — not enough young people are going into health care fields, locally and nationally.

Chautauqua partnered with the students to try to solve that problem locally, and offered to give the students all the access and resources they needed to solve the problem.

That team started by having conversations with health care providers in the community, and eventually all those meetings and conversations led to the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals approving Charles City High School’s application to offer a 75-hour certified nursing assistant program.

Iowa BIG North students worked with managers at Chautauqua Guest Homes to obtain state approval and specifically tailored the classes to meet the needs of high school students. The program allows for flexibility to engage students in the class while still allowing them to be involved in the full high school experience.

Last spring, 12 junior and senior students at Charles City High School completed the initial session of the new CNA class and were the first Iowa BIG North class to be awarded the state certificate of completion.

“This is all done by our student team,” said Forsyth, who said although she facilitated and provided input, it was the students who designed the classroom and designed the curriculum.

“Kids don’t want to spend that kind of time doing their homework, but when it’s something you’re doing that you love, it doesn’t seem like that,” said Wolfe.

Oleson said another advantage is that students not only get high school credit through Iowa BIG North work, they can also apply for college credit through various programs. An initiative she’s currently working on can be submitted to the University of Iowa for four credit hours.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get credit for college,” Arndt said. “Credits are usually about $2,000 each in college, and you can get these credits for college for free.”

Arndt is currently working on an initiative with Mercy Medical Center right now. The health company is adding a new space at its New Hampton location, and wants to market it and make a video about it.

“I’m really interested in both marketing and the medical field, so that’s what I’m doing,” Arndt said. As a part of that, Arndt and Iowa BIG North are also working with Mercy on other projects, including fundraising videos related to mammograms.

Every Iowa BIG North school has its own location, and the students communicate via “ZOOM,” which is an online communication system similar to Skype that allows all the students to meet remotely.

Arndt said that working with students from the other districts is another opportunity the program presents.

“It helps you out lot with your communications skills,” he said. “You’ll need that in your business life.”

Iowa BIG North headquarters is in the North Grand Building — the old middle school — and there’s a good chance that facility may not belong to the school district next year. For that reason, finding a new home is one of Iowa BIG North’s initiatives.

“We love where we are in the North Grand Building, but obviously we don’t know how much longer we’re going to be here,” said Forsyth, who said that their partners in New Hampton have been also looking for a new location, so feedback from them has been essential.

“Now the students are asking, how do you go about even locating a space? How do you go about renting a space? What about the cost? What about the heating?” Forsyth said.  “There is a ton of research that needs to go on before we can decide if we can do that or not. Look at all the learning that students are going to experience. It’s just amazing. We’re getting maximum amount of students, because we’re tapping into passion.”

Arndt — and all the other students — agreed.

“It’s all about passion,” Arndt said. “We’re all passionate about it, so we all want to do it, and that’s what drives us.”