BIG, Cedar Rapids schools partner for alternative approach to education

School has been back in session for awhile, but you won't find students in the Big Ideas Group hitting a mid-semester slump. On any given day one student may be recording an album while another gears up to participate in the Google Science Fair. In August the supplemental education program, formally called the Big Ideas

School has been back in session for awhile, but you won’t find students in the Big Ideas Group hitting a mid-semester slump. On any given day one student may be recording an album while another gears up to participate in the Google Science Fair. 

In August the supplemental education program, formally called the Big Ideas School, was absorbed into the Cedar Rapids Community School District, meaning any student within the district can enroll free of charge. Students outside the district also may apply and a tuition agreement will be reached among the districts.

“We’re really excited because it’s created an environment where you have a really big mix of school districts,” founder Shawn Cornally told Silicon Prairie News.

In June, Cornally told SPN that the program has the chance to benefit the future Iowa startup community by forcing students “to think entrepreunerially, as they consider the content they are trying to learn, the validity of a community connection to their project, the management of funds and resources as they complete projects and the interconnectedness of content areas.”

Cornally says he’s been impressed to see the program take relationships between students from different high schools beyond sports rivalries and casual acquaintances to partnerships and constant collaboration. 

The Big Ideas Group began its first summer session in the end of June and has since attracted students from across Iowa’s Creative Corridor. Cornally says right now the program has 15 students actively participating, but since students are able to start and stop the program at any time, the number often fluctuates.

Co-founded with Trace Pickering, another former educator, the Big Ideas Group currently is housed in Vault Co-working and Collaboration space in downtown Cedar Rapids. Students enrolled in the program have 60- to 90-minute session with a mentor each week and spend anywhere from 20 percent to 75 percent of their day—a minimum of two hours per week—working on their project.

“A lot of kids chunk off two periods or half of their day to work on their big project, which I think is a really interesting transition and disruption in the education system,” Cornally (right) said. “The system is currently built on time, the idea that if you come enough days we’ll give you a diploma. Here we don’t care when or how you do work though. We just care that it gets done.”

Student projects have dealt with a wide array of topics, including a student from Tanzania recording an album of traditional songs from his home country and one entering the Google Science Fair with her experiment to clean waste water with genetically modified plants. 

Cornally says the program tends to attract two types of students—either those who are already high achievers looking to add the “exclamation point” to their experiences or those who don’t relate well to traditional school systems. Either way, he says most have responded well to the Big Ideas Group’s focus on self-motivation and individual projects. 

“Not having a project, not having a resume, not having a CV, they respond a little more intensely to that than I ever thought they would,” he said. 

Cornally says the program hopes to have close to 30 students next semester and, with additional staff, 50 to 60 students by next fall. 


Credits: Shawn Cornally photo courtesy of Cornally. 

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