Spontaneous Caroling: First Music Meetup

Writers: Aren Buresh, Ebony Watkins, and Taylor Zellor

Originally, our idea was to organize a “Spontaneous Symphony” that would gather musicians for a spontaneous practice followed by a surprise performance somewhere in Cedar Rapids. However, since it was our first time planning an event, not to the difficulty in working with multiple instruments in this setting, we pivoted to a vocal meetup. As the holiday season was fast approaching, a “Spontaneous Caroling” event was the perfect idea.

Just because “Spontaneous Caroling” was more practical to orchestrate than a “Spontaneous Symphony” it didn’t mean that it wasn’t still a challenge. Our group had to find a place to practice, a place to perform, someone to lead the group, an accompanying musician, sheet music or lyric sheets, a song list, a schedule for the day, and some way of promoting it, all in about two and a half weeks. We realized it was necessary to have a solid plan when we pitched our project to potential venues, instructors, and musicians, so one Saturday afternoon, our team hashed out a schedule for the performance.

We contacted the NewBo City Market to see about a performance space, and CSPS/Legion Arts about a practice space. After meeting with both of these organizations and pitching them our ideas, we were able to secure our venues. We then contacted an experienced music teacher, Janice Powers, about being our instructor, and after meeting and pitching to her, she was excited to work with our group.

Creating our setlist happened through a bit of customer discovery, randomly asking people in the NewBo market what their favorite Christmas songs were, and the lyrics and sheet music were found online. To promote the event, we made an informational card to distribute physically and electronically to elementary schools and local businesses/community hubs, like the library, New Bo Market and Facebook page, College Community and Cedar Rapids virtual backpacks, Blue Zone Facebook page,  and West Music.

Saturday, December 13th, the “Spontaneous Caroling”  took place. The day began at 10:30 AM as we welcomed the arriving families at Legion Arts.Our instructor, Jan, led the families in rehearsal while Neil Rohlena, a member of the Iowa Accordion Club played along. Even though most of us previously had little or no connection to each other, we were able to work together. We only managed to practice each song once, but our overall performance at the Newbo Market was awesome. A few brave souls kicked off the caroling with a solo, while other members of the group joined in flash mob style. The caroling progressed, and vendors and shoppers even stopped to join in and take some pictures/videos of the event.

Considering that this was our first look into event planning, it was a definite success. With over 25 people coming to participate (not counting the strangers who joined in on the caroling, we were happy with our turnout. Yet, we didn’t have the perfect algorithm to preparing for our event.

Marketing was our weakness. One thing that made promoting difficult was the timing. We had a week off for Thanksgiving break, and then we were left with two weeks to promote our event. We found ourselves feeling rushed in getting the word out. However, despite hitting a few bumps in the road, “Spontaneous Caroling” was a great start for Music Meetup, and with some work on our marketing skills and better timing, we hope improve for our future events.

We are grateful to everyone who helped make Spontaneous Caroling possible. Without these people, the event would have not been possible. We’d like to say thank you to Taylor Bergen from Legion Arts, and Kristie Wetjen from the New Bo Market for letting us use their facilities for the practice and performance. Also, thank you to our musicians, Janice Powers, not only for helping us design the event, but also for leading the group so wonderfully, and Neil Rohlena for bringing his beautiful accordian to accompany the carolers. Lastly, we’d like to give a “BIG” thanks to all of the carolers who participated in “Spontaneous Caroling”. Our goal in Music Meetup is to bring together people in the community to create an environment that inspires people to pursue music. In our eyes, that goal was accomplished because of everyone’s outstanding contributions to the event.

We are looking to plan another meetup to kick off the new year, towards the end of January or early February. Between now and our next event, we hope to learn more about marketing and timing, and hopefully get even more people engaged in music. With a new and unique meetup, will come new and unique challenges. However, the great thing about BIG is that we get to learn how to overcome those types of challenges. With some hard work and well driven learning experiences, we are confident that our next meetup will be an even bigger success.

Documentary Group: Iowa BIG at the State of the District Video

Writers: Maurice Arrington and TJ Vogel

While working on our documentary project, we were struck with a new task that would benefit us for the future of our Sports Rivalry Documentary. We met with Justin Schaefer, The Video Specialist of the Cedar Rapids School District. He offered us the opportunity to create an information video Iowa BIG video for the yearly State of the District meeting. We accepted the challenge, hoping to better our video making abilities.

Our first step was to figure out how we wanted our video to layout. Once we got the plan was set, we had worked with Justin, learning how to use the professional-grade audio/visual equipment. We then interviewed students, teachers, and business partners involved directly with Iowa Big. Finally, our team spent a great deal of time learning and experimenting with Adobe Premier, until we put together our final product.

From this experience, we learned everything from lighting, b-roll usage, question writing, editing, sound manipulation, inserting text and graphics, shot-timing and a number of other things that will greatly benefit our future documentary. But what we found the most important learning, was that not everything is going to be perfect the first time, and that patience and hard work are needed to make a great video.

We want to thank Justin Schaefer for taking the time to come and show us how to work things and for giving us the opportunity to expand our skills in video-making. Also thank you to Trace Pickering for recommending us for this project and believing that we could get this done. Without Iowa BIG and the Cedar Rapids School District we would have not had gotten this opportunity at all so  a BIG thanks to them.

We are very thankful for this opportunity, and look forward to our next endeavor. We are moving forward with our Sports Documentary project which we will be about the history of sports rivalries in Cedar Rapids. We are ready for the long process and can’t wait for the final outcome.

Crowdsourcing: History of Lou Dennis Ice

Guest Writers: Riley Lowe and Ali Morrow

First published Dec. 3 by The Gazette

As the temperature drops, snow begins to fall and the snow plows return, people crank up the heat and tend to stay within the warmth of their homes.

We haven’t always withdrawn to the confines of our homes once the temperature dips below 32 degrees, however. We don’t have to watch snow fall and then melt again before making our way back into the outside world. It may be bleak, but if you look at it from the right perspective, it could just turn out to be a winter wonderland.

Since before 1930 people have braved the elements and found a way to maintain their sanity over the winter months thanks to places like Robbins Lake in Ellis Park. It became a popular attraction, transitioning from a beach in the warmer weather to a prominent destination for all things winter.

Whether you were an avid speed skater, hockey player, figure skater or just wanted to enjoy the ice, Lou Dennis Ice Rink was the place to be. You could skate on an outdoor rink to the sound of live music, then warm up next to a fire in the warming house.

This historic Cedar Rapids location is full of history, much of which has gone undocumented. In an effort to piece together the history of this site, our Iowa BIG group is researching the ice rink once located in Ellis Park. We are looking for any information or photos about the ice rink — from its warming house, activities, stories, pictures, etc.

If you have any information to help with this project, contact Nate Pruett at npruett@iowabig.org.

What Makes a Rivalry? Iowa BIG Documentary Seeks Help, Answers

Guest Writer: Sean Wu

First published on November 19 by The Gazette.

It’s Friday night and the scoreboard resets for the varsity game.

You question why you are even out in such loud, noisy stands. But you see your team rush out on the field or court, wearing the colors of your alma mater. Then, that team you despise so much steps in the footprints of your favorite team.

It’s another case of a good old inner-city rivalry, part of what makes high school sports so magical.

How did these rivalries begin? Why are they still around? Who were some of the major players involved with forming them? And why do we care so much about them?


Keegan and Maurice filming interviews.

These are questions our Iowa BIG group is exploring in a sports documentary about local high school rivalries. There is nothing that brings a city together more than high school sports and our group feels we need to revive the great Cedar Rapids/Linn County rivalries.

We can’t complete this project alone, though. We would greatly value any contributions from the Cedar Rapids-Marion community. You are the people who make these rivalries happen, so we need your help to create an accurate representation of them. No matter if you’re a Kennedy Cougar, Linn-Mar Lion, Washington Warrior, Prairie Hawk, Jefferson J-Hawk or a Xavier Saint, we can use your resources and knowledge.

We want to do the histories of these rivalries justice because we know how important they are to our city.

If you have information to help with this project, contact Nate Pruett and npruett@iowabig.org.

Iowa Startup Accelerator Launch, TJ Vogel

ISA_FINALThe last five pitches I saw were more amazing than I ever imagined. Smiles filled the room as the crowd watched these entrepreneurs showcase their fully operational businesses and take flight.

I had the opportunity to attend the Iowa Startup Accelerator Launch Day at the Doubletree with my parents. I walked into the Startup Accelerator space in the Vault almost everyday, and every time I went in there I wondered what they were working on. Never had I imagined the people I saw working hard every day were launching multi million dollar companies. The environment in the Startup accelerator seemed so laid back. Listening to the final pitches showed me that they had been very hard at work, and they succeeded in their goal for a successful business.

The hard work they put into those ninety-four days showed in their business pitches. This was about each company’s 100th time pitching their business and they had it near perfection. I could see the excitement each person had as they showed us all their accomplishments. As I was watching and learning about their journey, it made me realize that just about anything is possible, and if you put in the effort and hard work, you can make your dreams a reality.

More information here: http://www.iowastartupaccelerator.com/


Guest Writer: Cali Trueblood

Cali is a sophomore at Kennedy High School. She is currently involved in the Urban Orchards project and the Bioluminescent Project. She recently helped out the ONE campaign by helping to create the World’s Largest Duck Duck Goose Game. She’s also involved in Key Club and enjoys helping out at the Soup Kitchen at the First Presbyterian Church. Her favorite school subject is math and she’s on her school’s tennis team. She is a Warehouse Associate at ESP International. Cali hasn’t yet decided what she wants to do once she’s out of school and is hoping BIG can help point her in the right direction.

Urban Orchards


Alexander Bishop’s Perspective of Proposed Urban Orchard, Stuckeman School, Penn State College of Arts and Architechture

My current BIG project is an urban orchard. We have yet to change the name to something more suiting since we are considering adding a garden and other fun ideas! Along with the garden, some of the other ideas we have come up with include: benches for the park patrons to use to enjoy their time in nature, milkweeds since monarchs have become scarce, and clover to add more nitrogen to the soil for the trees and it helps with reducing mowing maintenance. After having our first meeting with the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, we realized that some of our ideas might not work if we want to put our orchard in Noelridge park because of federal laws. Even though some of our ideas wouldn’t necessarily work, it was a great experience and will prepare us for the future.
The research for this project has been very interesting. I hadn’t realized that there were certain zones for plants. I had never understood what the numbers on the tree ID tags meant, but after learning about all of the zones, I understand! Each zone is specified by the range of temperatures the tree can live through. I also found out that certain types of fruit trees may need a different type of the fruit to be pollinated. For example, a honeycrisp apple tree would need an empire apple tree as its pollination partner.
I have really enjoyed this opportunity to get out into the community and actually do something to make a difference in my community. Each project normally meets once a week and there is always something I can be doing. It’s very different from regular school since we have to get in contact with possible partners for our projects and meet with important people. Collaboration plays a major part in BIG.

Life at BIG

Becker Design and Function Ed

Dennis Becker discuss the design and function of Iowa BIG.

What an exciting week at BIG! Monday was the first BIG visit day and  staff and students spent the afternoon with an engaging group of educators, administrators, and researchers from across Iowa and as far away as Connecticut and DC. Representatives from higher education also set aside some time to join us. The visitors were able to participate in team meetings and a variety of Q and A sessions, in addition to seeing the BIG space and meeting our community of coworkers and entrepreneurs. It was very powerful to interact with such a passionate group of educators, in varied places on their PBL and CBE journey.

Students, partners, and staff answer questions at the first BIG visit event.

Students, partners, and staff answer questions at the first BIG visit event.

On Monday night, many of our community partners joined us for an update on all things BIG and to spend time with faculty and students. Students Kyle Scheer and Jordan Icenogle pitched their projects to the large group. Other students, parents, and partners participated in a panel discussion, sharing their thoughts on BIG and answering questions generated by our guests.

Tuesday was the Innovation Expo at the Doubletree Convention Center in downtown Cedar Rapids. Many students spent time listening to entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, networking with community members, and participating in the Inventor’s Garage. Trey White, Bethany Shaw, and Sam Uthoff all had their projects displayed and were pitching their ideas to attendees. Sam walked away a winner, with $50, awarded through a pitch contest!

Trey with his work at the Inventor's Garage.

Trey with his work at the Inventor’s Garage.

The BIG Advisory Board held their inaugural meeting on Thursday evening. This group is comprised of students, parents, and community members, and function in an advisory role to the program. The table was surrounded by innovate thinkers who are passionate supporters of BIG.

Today a group will visit an aquaponics farm in western Iowa and on Friday, a group will be visiting magnet schools in Minneapolis as part of their work surrounding the Johnson Elementary STEAM project (Full STEAM Ahead). All of this and it’s only Thursday! Welcome to life at BIG.

Guest Writer: Taylor Volesky

Taylor Volesky is a dual senior at Prairie High School and Iowa BIG. She looks forward to studying Pharmacy and Business at Drake University next year. Taylor is involved in Executive Board Student Council, Business Professionals of America, Key Club, and National Honor Society at Prairie. She is also actively involved in the music department, serving as a Field Commander for the Prairie “Hawks” Marching Band, and as the Student Manager for the Prairie Premiere Show Choir Competition. This past summer Taylor went to Peru and lived with a host family. She also worked on rebuild houses in Pittsburgh as a mission trip through her church.


Lou Dennis Ice Rink

I am a first year student at Iowa BIG, and so far it has been the best decision that I have made for my senior year. In high school, students fall into the routine of going to school, completing the homework that they have to for class, and showing up for class again. Growing up I liked school, and did well. However, as I got older I started losing the excitement to go to school everyday. When I first heard about Iowa BIG I was hesitant. I had heard great things through my friend Kinzie Farmer, but I have always been one that groaned to myself whenever a teacher said group work.

Women Ice Skating by J.R. Taylor

Women Ice Skating by J.R. Taylor

This year I am a part of three different teams, with different advisors, in an atmosphere that is very new to me. I am also getting the chance to collaborate with new people from surrounding school districts. One of the projects that I am currently working on is trying to reopen the Lou Dennis Ice Rink, previously located in Ellis Park. My team and I have divided up into two separate groups, Team City and Team Ice. Team City is the part of the project that I am actively involved in. We are researching similar cities to Cedar Rapids, what they offer for outdoor winter activities, as well as how this would impact our city with cost and community involvement. We are also looking into what we need to do when we present our proposal to the city. Team Ice is investigating the ice rink’s history up to this point, and making contacts with people who knew about Lou Dennis, and learning about the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. In the long run we have to figure out weather patterns, measure the ice, record data this winter for our case, and the science behind ice making the ice rink work.

I have learned through this experience that the Creative Corridor isn’t actually as big as it seems. Once you have created a network with the mentors in the area, the people you are trying to connect with seem to magically appear. Through networking if you know the right people, they in turn know the people that you are trying to contact for help; it is just a matter of establishing those connections. All the adults that I have had the pleasure of working with thus far have been so willing and helpful. The freedom that BIG provides has taught me how to properly manage the free time that I am given in order to be successful. I am excited to see the end result of the projects I have been working on.

Guest Writer: Ali Morrow

Ali Morrow is a senior at Prairie High School. After high school she plans on attending Luther or Wartburg to study business and law. At Prairie, she is involved with Student AliMCouncil, National Honor Society, and Business Professionals of America. Within those activities she is Student Council Treasurer, National Honor Society Secretary, and Business Professionals of America Communications Director. She is also involved in both high school and club soccer. In her spare time she enjoys hanging out with friends and family and watching movies.

BIG Project: Cedar Rapids History and Artifacts

One of my BIG projects is “Cedar Rapids History and Artifacts.” In this project we have partnered with Jelinek Companies, the parent company of Parlor City Pub and Eatery. In this partnership we are using Cedar Rapids artifacts they have within their restaurant and storage areas to help tell the story of Cedar Rapids. Our end goal is to produce some kind of database that contains their numerous artifacts as well as providing a story and background information about the specific artifact. As the stories are told, we also would like to create QR codes or plaques that could go next to the artifacts within the restaurant. These plaques or QR codes (barcodes in which you can scan with your phone) would tell or take you to a site that would give further information on where specifically the artifact came from in the Cedar Rapids area as well as what it was once used for.

At the beginning stages of our project we were not sure of what we wanted this project to look like and took time brainstorming our ideas. During this process, we were asked to seek out information regarding Cedar Rapids to help spur the idea process. For one the first times in my school career I was not given boundaries or limitations on what my project could look like. I soon came to realize that the information out in the “real world” is endless and that to find what you need to know you must create contacts within the community. Although scary at first, making these contacts not only helps build my 21st century skills, but also teaches me how to interact professionally with both my superiors and peers.

One of the many artifacts in Parlor City Pub and Eatery.

One of the many artifacts in Parlor City Pub and Eatery.

In the short time I have been involved in BIG I have learned valuable skills that not only go towards what I need to learn in a high school environment, but also skills I can use in a future career. These skills include in depth research, communicating with community members, learning to move on from a failed idea and from there creating a new idea or project that could be successful. Learning these skills now I feel has put me at an advantage and will benefit me later because I will be applying skills I already have whereas others will be learning as they go.