The Pain and the Glory: Running Iowa’s BIG Competency Based School

So, my professional life has been completely consumed with running BIG. No tweeting, no blogging here or at Edutopia (sadly), little for-fun programming, but it’s worth it.

The model is so simple: do a project that is big, do it for an audience that extends well beyond the school’s walls, do it because you have to know, and do it until you get it right.

PBL VennNo grades, no points, no bells, no finals until it’s final.

This is as fantastic and horrible as it sounds. Students are often caught in a chaotic oscillation between worlds. This has been amplified by the concession BIG has had to make — which made the political existence of the program easier — but is causing us this code-switching friction: We don’t enroll students full time. They come to us for as much or as little “resume building” as they want to do during their academic day.

That means a student may be attempting to mental shuffle the concept of non-linear competency based education in with the psychological contrast of for-points worksheets. Not to mention the logistical challenges of interfacing a schedule-less system with the institutional bells of a regular high school.

That said, the work is awesome, and I can’t express the magnitude of my appreciation and awe for the moxie the Cedar Rapids Community School District has shown on this project.

There’s not much better than sitting with a student as they realize they’re in the driver seat of a real project. There’s a freedom in this that doesn’t exist when the teacher forces the standards on a project. It feels a little Wild West, though.

I’m currently working on a CBE version of BlueHarvest that will allow for competency-standard mapping and project management. We’re calling it BlueHarvestBBQ, and it creates public-facing profiles for every project happening at BIG. So, until that’s done. Here’s a list of the awesome stuff my students are working on (and the curriculum to which said stuff is connected to):

  1. Phytoremediation of waste water with engineered Poplar root cells. (standards met from: environmental science, physics, biology, economics, and industrial engineering)
  2. Build Me A Starship Please: A blog considering the finer technologies aboard the Enterprise-D and the cost to achieve them sooner rather than later. (Physics, English)
  3. TEDxBIG: We have a budding event organizer who is throwing a TEDx event in May concerning the genetic, sexist, and neurological pressures women feel along their journey to success in the working world. (Marketing, Biology, Communications)
  4. A Record of Tanzanian Popular Gospel: A student is recording from scratch the great works from the folk and popular library of Tanzanian gospel. (Audio engineering, physics, digital electronics, anthropology, piano performance, sound programming)
  5. The Genetic Game of Life: A complex tribute to the classic Game of Life, this student is introducing genetics, mutation, evolution, complexity, and resource management into a cellular automata environment. We’re currently looking for experts in this area to email/Skype with to discuss research questions to pursue. Know anyone? (Biology, evolution, genetics, computer programming, probability)
  6. Number 5 has morphed into a a project regarding Engineered T-Cells and Immuno-Oncology. More soon.
  7. Robot Angler Fish: A team of students is producing a robotic angler fish run by Arduino, cuz winning. They’re hoping to enter into a competition to produce a robot that will eventually travel to Jupiter’s Europa. (Robotics, programming, physics, environmental science, Marketing)

There are more, but they’re too nascent to mention here.

I hope you can see that the BIG model is rotated by [latex]i[/latex] from the traditional model. We don’t ask ourselves “What project teaches this content?” We ask, “What content does this project hit with contextual fidelity?” We avoid using projects as assessment tasks, and shine to the idea that BIG projects are deep contextualizers.

It’s not about pigeon-holing the project, it’s about being open to what the students want to do, because that’s the only psychological leverage I have at BIG. If you don’t like your project, I can’t make you do it; we don’t have points or grades. This is the pain and the glory.

That’s so different from how I would teach 30 kids calculus. So different. And to such different effect.

Oh, here’s the candidate for our mascot done by graphic artist Joshua Koza. Can I get tweets in support for how awesome this is?


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