Trace Pickering on Community-Connected Projects

Trace Pickering - Getting Smart Podcast

On today’s episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom sits down with Trace Pickering, Executive Director of Iowa BIG, one of our favorite learning programs in the country.

Trace has a background in community building, has served as Associate Supt of Cedar Rapids Community School District and also Associate Director of Education Reimagined. He has a legacy of empowering people to pursue interesting and important projects while bringing together a whole community.

Let’s listen in as Tom and Trace discuss the power of community-connected projects, how to scale a place like Iowa BIG and creating a culture of PBL.

In June 2008, much of eastern Iowa was underwater. The Cedar River covered 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids and destroyed much of downtown. As part of the rebuilding process, the local newspaper publisher commissioned Trace to lead a community conversation about what young people should know and be able to do. Through the process of rebuilding, he saw entrepreneurs and artists come revitalize the city and a contagious sense of collaboration.

He described the education innovations he was seeing at the time as a “litany of non-solutions” and in order to better show others in the community the problem they were facing he launched the Billy Madison project, an initiative to send people back to school. This resulted in 60 community leaders going back to school over a four-month period. The findings were unanimous — nearly nothing about being an active citizen was being taught in schools and nearly none of the work the students were being given qualified as real work.

The group developed a vision for learning experiences based on three themes:

  • Passion: Start by tapping into a student’s interests and use that as a powerful learning tool.
  • Projects: Engage kids in solving real-world problems and seeing how content actually lives in the real world.
  • Community: Network kids into the community to see all of the great people and wonderful opportunities that exist.

He then went on to co-found Iowa BIG, a unique half-day learning experience with 7 sending high schools that finds ways to offer students core credits for doing authentic projects. The learners own the learning at Iowa BIG and through the structure of the program, the learners get real-world experience like writing professional emails, corresponding and wayfinding.

Cedar Rapids was hit hard by a series of storms in August of 2020, some of the students decided to make their community better through projects. The storm wiped out 65% of tree canopy and students decided to start the Splinters project, an initiative to get chainsaw artists to turn felled trees into beautiful art. All proceeds from the sculptures went to regrowing the tree canopy. Other students are doing original research on biomes that can break down oil through chem and environmental sciences.

On incorporating Iowa BIG experiences in your own community:

  • Leaders need a paradigmatic shift. Need likeminded individuals for a learner-centered paradigm.
  • Leaders need to understand the opportunity costs of traditional school.
  • “All it takes is an administrator to give a little leeway — and just get started. Start with some smaller, easier projects.” – Trace Pickering.

At scale, Iowa BIG could look like a magnet school opportunity or even altering a school schedule. “[We have to] give[e] teachers freedom — and kids freedom to explore.”

For more information check out the Iowa BIG Podcast to hear interviews with key stakeholders about how they got to where they are and what’s next and read the Getting Smart article Making a BIG Difference: Unleashing Talent, Inspiring Innovators.

Key Takeaways:

[:09] About today’s episode with Trace Pickering.
[:55] Tom Vander Ark welcomes Trace to the podcast!
[1:16] Trace and Tom go into the “Way-back Machine” to 12 years ago after the Cedar River covered Cedar Rapids in a flood. Trace shares his reflections from what he learned in the process of a local newspaper inviting him to host a series of community conversations about what was next for Cedar Rapids. He also shares how this series of community conversations led to the creation of Iowa BIG.
[6:54] Trace explains what Iowa BIG is, what its mission is, and how long it has been running.
[8:46] How does this work for students? How many high schools do they work with?
[9:23] Trace shares about how Iowa BIG is learner-centered and how the projects work around this.
[11:54] Do many or all of the student projects at Iowa BIG revolve around the concept of “community as classroom”?
[12:22] The idea that students should do work that matters to them and their community is really central to every project that’s co-constructed at Iowa BIG.
[12:42] Trace shares a recent example of an incredible student project that helped out the community in the midst of the pandemic.
[17:05] Trace shares how they incorporated communication expectations into that project and how the organizing students developed and demonstrated communication standards as part of the project.
[19:07] Trace shares how they incorporate science and math learning into these community projects and shares a specific example of an amazing student project.
[21:50] Trace gives advice to those who want to start up a similar program and become more learner-centered.
[23:48] Tom offers further suggestions on how you could begin to implement a similar program.
[24:11] What would an Iowa BIG ecosystem look like? What if all high schools were learner-centered?
[26:57] Does Trace feel that this sort of work is more important than ever in this current landscape?
[29:09] Where to learn more about Iowa BIG and the work that Trace Pickering is doing.
[30:01] Tom thanks Trace for joining the podcast!

Mentioned in This Episode:

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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