Iowa BIG is Change Today

I’m going to see Seth Godin speak this afternoon at Iowa City’s Entrefest, and I have to admit that I feel inspired to be a change agent today; it’s been hard to maintain that lately.

Running Iowa BIG has sapped nearly every ounce of energy I’ve been able to cleave from Lucky Charms and coffee this year. The grind of being seen as insane, revolutionary, helpful, hurtful, and everything in between is truly an ambivalent experience.

I started this journey in 2006 when I entered graduate school. I told my advising professor that my goal was to start a new kind of school that wouldn’t be so boring. Nine years later I no longer lead a team in this effort, I’m a member of a team of peers who all share the same vision; in some way I feel like they’re a figment of my imagination, but I too am theirs.

The goal is simple, create a school where the curriculum is decided upon meaningfully by 5 key players:

  1. Students
  2. Teachers
  3. Business Community
  4. Nonprofit Community
  5. Government Agencies

I’m happy to say that we have 120+ partners in groups 3, 4, & 5, as well as 130 students and 4 teachers. Remaining excited about change is difficult when the system you’re changing has assumed curriculum for over a century, and today I feel even more proud of the 40+ initiatives that Iowa BIG has helped spin up.

We have students who are acting as the marketing department for the local curling club (not my idea, surprisingly), we have a group who has designed a draggable submersible spectrometer for measuring plastic pollution in waterways, we have students who have completely redesigned and implemented public works projects; it’s surreal.

The ambivalence comes from remembering what physics, english, or whatever used to look like. I don’t think my students this year are as proficient with momentum calculations as my previous students were, but I would hire my current students over the others to do the same analytical job.

My tire fire post was a little hyperbolic, but I’d like to underline what has become the Iowa BIG thesis: If the goal of education is to produce certain virtuous qualities in students, then the curriculum by which you get there must be arbitrary. There are just too many ways to become empathetic for the human condition to say that any one set of books is the right way. I know that this argument is old, but I think more digital ink needs to be spilled.

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This is what my staff and I talk about. Is this what we’re doing? Is this why we don’t grade, why we don’t have bells, why we don’t schedule our students down to the minute, because you can’t achieve any of those things when you take away a human’s agency for the sake of prepping them for the professor mill?