How One Amazing Day Re-Defined My Comfort Zone

Learner Voices   16 March 2017
By Hannah Bertram

Hi, I’m Hannah! I’m a senior in high school from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and an enthusiastic member of Iowa BIG. Throughout the last four years, I have grown to love the community I was raised in. My story is winding and continuously developing, and I’m excited to share it with you.

A little background: Iowa BIG is an innovative, alternative, academic program offered to high school students in Cedar Rapids, Marion, and Mt. Vernon, Iowa. The Iowa BIG model is quite different from that of traditional school. We don’t have classes; we don’t have bells; and we don’t have tests. At BIG, we see the community as our classroom. Students are encouraged to be makers, designers, storytellers, and social entrepreneurs by working with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. In a nutshell, we receive the same credit that we would at our traditional high schools, but instead of doing worksheets and unenthusiastic presentations about things that don’t interest us, we work on initiatives/projects we are passionate about and that make a difference in our communities. This model of education has changed my perceptions of myself and the world around me.

How Did I Get to Iowa BIG?

Let’s backtrack a little. I discovered Iowa BIG during a time when everything I did and thought in high school seemed to be Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, and double-spaced. As a student who had always found a way to be engaged with and passionate about what I was being taught, I had lost my drive.

Fortunately, in the spring of my sophomore year, I attended the Iowa BIG “Hackathon”—a day enveloped in controlled chaos where students from BIG and traditional schools come together to “hack” on new and old ideas that interest us or could benefit the community (these usually come hand-in-hand).



My classroom became the streets of Cedar Rapids, and my educators became everyone I met.

Hannah Bertram
Learner, Iowa BIG

Personally, I spent my day working with the Urban Orchards team, a group of BIG learners designing and installing an urban fruit orchard at Noelridge Park.

In one day, I had designed a washing station for a fruit orchard, gone to a local park and staked areas for fruit trees, and met with the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department. It was a crazy day, but I felt so fulfilled and active that I immediately knew Iowa BIG was a place for me.

Starting a New Journey

Joining Iowa BIG was scary at first. I had always worked hard in school to get “good grades,” but BIG wasn’t about the grades. It was about experiences much richer than I would get at traditional school. My family and I weren’t sure how to approach this different style of learning, but by the following fall, I was officially a BIG student. My first projects at Iowa BIG transformed my previous connotations of “education.” My classroom became the streets of Cedar Rapids, and my educators became everyone I met. Naturally, I joined the Urban Orchard team and dabbled in agriculture. I gained first-hand experience working with tree nurseries and the Parks and Recreation Department.

Then, I joined the CRTrees project, a group of students working to design an app for the City of Cedar Rapid’s Arborist. This was when I tried coding for the first time. Most students my age, especially girls, are never taught how to program websites and apps. I started learning the language of HTML while building an app for the Arborist, while building an app for the city’s Arborist. We used the CRTrees App to help him log the health and location of trees in the area. My exposure to coding opened a new door for me, and I discovered my interest in web development. I started designing the Food Environment Alliance website for a team of food security organizations in CR, and I have designed more sites since.

Through the Food Environment Alliance, I also gained public speaking experience. We brought seventeen organizations together, which took a great deal of communication. My team and I were constantly presenting and editing the website to make it as effective as possible for all the partners involved. Through the experience, I also saw my self-confidence grow. All of these projects were fun and experimental and allowed me to learn a lot about myself and how I function in a team-based setting. They took me from basic Times New Roman, to the iconic Helvetica, expressive Bodoni, and professional Neuton.

Breaking New Ground

Out of all my projects, there was one that outdid them all—the ACEs project. I joined a team of students, teachers, and community members who were passionate about the way mental health was viewed by the community. We researched and analyzed the Center for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study. Through the ACEs study, it was found that the negative mental health impact on adults who suffered through childhood trauma is greater than society realizes— because it is an ongoing cycle. We started working with educators in the area and implementing trauma-informed practices in three local high schools, a youth shelter, and two elementary schools. We also had the chance to work with Iowa State Senator Liz Mathis on her mental health bill, Senate File 2259. This bill gained more funding for injectable medications for schizophrenia patients and increased accessibility to psychiatrists for Iowans.

The ACEs project opened my eyes in a way that education never had before. Learning about the impact trauma had on my peers caused me to reconstruct how I empathize with others. I also discovered I have an immense passion for psychology and public health. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer to implement mental health supports in the state and community. However, I quickly discovered not everyone agreed. Some people think that mental illness doesn’t exist, and some think it’s not their cause to worry about—however, I set out to change that. By working with audiences that encompassed many diverse beliefs about mental health, I was welcomed into a network of people throughout Iowa and beyond that made me enjoy the experience even more.

The ACEs project presented many obstacles, and I experienced a lot of failures. There were many times I wondered if people would ever be willing to change their approach. Many educators and even students questioned if implementing a new attitude would actually help, and sometimes it didn’t. However, these failures taught me about the value of persistence. Working alongside people who also felt the conversation about mental health needed to be louder empowered me to become someone I never had been before. I was confident and brave. I was bold.


The way I have been integrated into the community has allowed me to see everything, including myself, through a new lens.

Hannah Bertram
Learner, Iowa BIG

My time with Iowa BIG has allowed me to view myself in a new light. I recognize the value of experimentation, have redefined my comfort zone, and am more confident overall in myself and my abilities.

As I transition into the end of my high school career, I have footing in the field of public health. I credit Iowa BIG for helping me develop a lasting network that will support me throughout my life. I want to thank Education Reimagined for supporting this program, and I want to thank the program for supporting me. Iowa BIG never fails to challenge me to push myself. The way I have been integrated into the community has allowed me to see everything, including myself, through a new lens. Because of Iowa BIG, I am ready to create my own fonts.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.