Iowa BIG: A Conversation with Trace Pickering

Q&A   11 December 2015
By Dr. Trace Pickering


We just threw ourselves into it, anchored in our three core beliefs of passion, community, and authentic projects.

Trace Pickering
Associate Director of Practitioner Engagement & Learning

Q.  How are things at Iowa BIG going into your third year? Do you feel like you’re settling into a nice rhythm?

A.  Trace: It’s been going really well. Last year, we just threw ourselves into it, anchored in our three core beliefs of passion, community, authentic projects. We learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes. It was often a case of “fake it ‘til you make it.” Coming into this year, we feel like we had a much better grasp of what we’re doing. We now have our database converted completely over for competency-based learning and project management. Our team spent the summer designing both the database and making key adjustments for this year. They have implemented it with integrity, and we are seeing significant improvements. We’ve also upped our enrollment a bit. We now have 92 learners, up from 70 last year, and have room for about 120. We will hold our mid-year “hack-a-thon” on December 17th, which will provide students interested in BIG a day of immersion so that they can make an informed choice about BIG.

Something else pretty exciting happened last summer. At the end of last year, we had about 25% of our learners refuse to accept that they were supposed to stop working on their projects just because school was over. They were determined to continue. In fact, we had graduated seniors who kept coming back.


We had about 25% of our learners refuse to accept that they were supposed stop working on their projects just because school was over.

Trace Pickering
Associate Director of Practitioner Engagement & Learning

Q.  What were they working on that made them so excited to keep going?

A.  Trace: We had a group of 3-4 learners, for example, who stayed through the summer because they wanted to get into drones. They had a vision of a drone that farmers could use to fly over parts of their fields that they couldn’t usually see to ensure that they were being properly irrigated and fertilized. The whole idea was very Iowan. As you can imagine, they had lots of obstacles and chances to “fail forward.” There was a lot to figure out—from how to configure test equipment on a drone to how to collect the test data. So, they purchased a drone, put it together, and, after getting it into many horrific crashes, realized it wasn’t the right drone for what they were doing. Luckily, right at that time, there was an organization that had been working with drones in the area closing its doors. As they left, they gave the kids theirs.

With their new drone, they started making some progress. Then, we connected them to Iowa State University, where they brought their idea to a professor who was doing agricultural work in South Africa. They worked with this professor on how to have their drone help farmers in Africa and are now figuring out what instruments and cameras they can put on it. They might even get to go to Africa to test their drone. This is the sort of experience our kids are getting. It is amazing to see what they come up with and to watch them bring it to life.

Q.  That is such a brilliant idea—and very out of the box. How do you generate projects like those?

A.  Trace: This year, we are in a much better place in terms of projects. Last year, we had very few in-bound projects—those pitched by businesses from our community. About 80% of projects last year were out-bound—those that the kids came up with, like the drone one. This year, we’ve reversed that. Now, 80% are in-bound. Businesses are tripping over each other to present projects to the kids. At the beginning of the school year, we had 15-20 businesses coming in every day, pitching their projects. We told them that we don’t have enough kids for all the projects and that the kids choose their own projects, we don’t force them to do anything. So you better be on your game! It was amazing to watch—adults pitching projects to kids.


We see Iowa BIG as a way to bring to life possibilities for the community that they want but don’t yet see.

Trace Pickering
Associate Director of Practitioner Engagement & Learning

Q.  That must be eye opening for the businesses and community too. How have you seen your role in the community?

A.  Trace: Strong community outreach has been one of our objectives all along. We keep reminding the community that Iowa BIG is a design that they created, and the projects we work on are generated by the community’s own needs and wants. Our initial hunch was correct—we have more opportunities and needs here than are being met. Our kids are able to tap into that and make a real difference.

So, while we still have people asking, “Isn’t AP the best way?,” we now have business people who can tell our story. They can say, “Here is the work these kids did, and here’s the power of watching them learn in real-life contexts.” We see Iowa BIG as a way to bring to life possibilities for the community that they want but don’t yet see. We want to change mindsets. What I really want is for this to become a norm for a high-school experience—every learner should have the opportunity and time to explore their passions and get better connected to their community.

Q.  What are you finding out about the students who have graduated and gone off to college? Is participation in Iowa BIG helping them?

A.  Trace: We are attempting to get some data on that right now. We are in our 3rd year, so we have some kids two years into college. So far, they’re doing very, very well and telling us things like, “I’m much more prepared for the way college works.” College is a different environment than high school. It is more about 1-2 big assessments, knowing how to talk to adults, speaking up in class, and knowing how advocate for and gain important experiences. Iowa BIG kids already know how to do all that. They also have a leg up in knowing how to create networks at their colleges—knowing how to build relationships with the professors. It’s about giving yourself opportunities. On the downside, some report that returning to the old lecture system is driving them a bit insane.

Earlier this year, we published a paper on outcomes stemming from innovations in our district. Our results across the board are pretty amazing. For example, our kids reported an increased sense of self-efficacy and higher engagement in their schoolwork. One of our programs was with high school freshmen that would meet in the afternoon with three of our teachers. Remember, these are freshmen, so they hadn’t had much experience and time with us yet. But, these kids outscored other freshmen in math, science, and English by 22, 24, 26 percent, respectively. As much as my team lashes out at standardized tests, that’s what the numbers look like. We got it done through relationships and developing efficacy.

Q.  With anything new and different, there will be inevitable challenges. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges Iowa BIG has faced along the way?

A.  Trace: One of our biggest challenges has been and continues to be getting people to understand that the kids know the Common Core standards as well or better than they would in a traditional system. We have to do that without throwing the teachers and schools under the bus. Our education issues are systemic issues, not people issues. It is not an easy task.

We’ve faced some scheduling nightmares as well. In the traditional system, our kids are getting their credits one at a time—making it really hard to carve out the time for BIG. We really want to get to the point where Iowa BIG can be for a block of time every day. But, right now, we have 5 high schools with 5 different schedules, and all of them have required courses only offered at one time.

There have been exceptions. With subjects like history, the transition has been easier. Most of the projects that the city pitches to our kids involve getting something through the city council. This means that our learners don’t read about government—they get to do government. Our history teachers have loved that.


We have requests for our curriculum, but our community is our curriculum.

Trace Pickering
Associate Director of Practitioner Engagement & Learning

Q.  Have you had much external resistance to your work?

A.  Trace: We’ve actually had more internal resistance than external, but we’re seeing that wane a bit. A lot of it comes down to the limitations on people’s ability to imagine what could be. It is hard when you’ve grown up and worked in the system for so long. But, this year, we’ve had two school counselors who’ve come to us and said that they’ve never seen kids more engaged, excited, and passionate about what they are doing. It is great to see the momentum of support growing. External resistance has been almost zero because our community imagined and built BIG, not a group of administrators in the central office. As a result, the community has strong ownership of their creation.

Q.  Have you thought about expanding Iowa BIG’s model to other places? What might your role in that expansion look like?

A.  Trace: We are spreading the model across Iowa. There are a number of schools submitting state grants based on our model—and they are coming to us for support. Mount Vernon, a small, local district located nearby, is one of them. We’ll be having one of their students joining us this year. One medium-sized city in the middle of the state sent three teachers to BIG to immerse themselves in the model for an entire week. They received a STEM grant from the state to begin to implement an Iowa BIG model appropriate to their context. We have also been going down to Southern Iowa a lot to help a district down there get started. They had two students apply to BIG, but they were 100 miles away! Thankfully, their district said, “We’ll just have to create it here.”

In terms of helping with the transition, in some ways, the only way to do it is to just do it. But, we have been brainstorming about how we could assist with professional development. We have requests for our curriculum, but our community is our curriculum. That is very hard for a traditional educator to wrap their head around. So, with some of these districts that are transitioning toward Iowa Big models, we are finding that the full, week-long immersion type of PD is the only way to go. The model and the work of the teacher is so dramatically different, we don’t know how else to provide meaningful PD other than to throw them into the pool with us.

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