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.

Guest Writer: Walt Wagner-Hecht

Walt Wagner-Hecht is an eleventh grader at Kennedy High School and is currently working on the Urban Orchards and Species GIS projects at BIG. His interests include nature, math, and linguistics. Last summer, Walt spent a week at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory studying diatoms at an aquatic microbiology camp. He also visited Costa Rica as part of an Audubon birding trip with field guide author Richard Garrigues. Walt is a member of the Iowa Young Birders and frequently attends their field trips. He plays harp for the Orchestra Iowa Harp Ensemble and French horn for the Coe College Concert Band. He plans to study biology and environmental science in college.

Walt on a birding trip in Costa Rica.

Walt on a birding trip in Costa Rica.

BIG Project: Species Range GIS

My BIG project is currently called “Species Range GIS,” for lack of a better title. This title explains one of its goals, but it’s really a lot more than that as well. I am very interested in wild animals and nature, and often research various species and ecosystems. While I was doing this one day, I realized there wasn’t a very good way to compare the ranges of different species to see which ones lived within an area. I could theoretically find a GIS program and import species range data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List (which keeps map data for all mammal species in its database), but I couldn’t find a program that was free, easy to use, and that could handle large amounts of data. I was very frustrated, so my mom suggested that I make my own program. And so the original idea for my BIG project was conceived.

Since then, I’ve decided that I want to include more information than just species’ ranges; it would also be nice to include their detailed classification, interactions with other species, and more. Based on the original idea of a GIS, which uses different “layers” of geographical information placed on top of maps, I plan to organize this information in “layers,” with one layer consisting of distribution, another for classification, etc.

This was my idea when I arrived at BIG. I had already spent the summer working on the classification layer by comparing various hypotheses about birds’ evolutionary relationships to construct a gigantic cladogram or “family tree” of all living bird species. Now I thought that BIG could provide a great place to make my idea into an actual website or program. I soon learned that in order to make sure our projects would be used, BIG wanted us to do customer discovery. This meant I would have to ask what people wanted in a biological information resource. I created a survey and sent it to several ornithological, forestry, and naturalist programs for feedback. Since we haven’t actually finished collecting our results yet, I don’t know for sure how customer discovery will impact my original idea, but I’m hopeful that both the scientific community and I are happy with the results.

At BIG, I’ve been learning a lot about computer programming to prepare me for creating the website or program. Right now Shawn and I are working on converting my cladogram into a form that can be used by OneZoom, a program for visualizing cladograms. This visualization will be used for the classification layer of the final program. While my idea is very BIG and complex, with the help of BIG I think I’ll be able to break it down into pieces that I can work on before connecting them into the final product. Traditional science classes, because they have to follow exact requirements, don’t allow for in-depth research like this, so I’m glad I can work on this at BIG.

Guest Writer: Kinzie Farmer

Kinzie at the podium at the conclusion of SuccessS.H.E.

Kinzie Farmer is a senior in high school and will graduate in the spring of 2015.  She looks forward studying International Business at Santa Clara University or Notre Dame.  Kinzie has spoken at a handful of conferences and is involved in her school through band and Business Professionals of America.  She hopes to share what she learned throughout the past year with other students so they fulfill their dreams.  Kinzie loves to spend time with her family and friends and travel all over the world.

A School Students Love

As a senior in high school, I have spent more than my fair share of time in a seat watching the clock.  I entered my thirteenth year of school this August, and for the first time since I can remember, I was so excited.  I no longer had to sit in a seat alongside of thirty other kids and learn what I “had” to.  I didn’t have to watch that clock for forty-two minutes, or cram for a test and stay up super late.  I didn’t have to be herded through the hallways in five minutes and make it to the next class on time.

This year, I was able to go back to the school that I love.   It’s a school without classrooms, with only four teachers, no tests and my favorite, no class periods.  Here at Iowa BIG, we learn the same material as other students, just in a way that’s best for us.


Kinzie speaking at 1 Million Cups.

I was one of less than twenty students at Iowa BIG last year, and now I am one of sixty.  I had the privilege of completing a project last year that challenged me as a student more than I could imagine and as a person even more.  I worked with my teacher and headmaster, Shawn Cornally, to create SuccessS.H.E. to inspire young women to overcome the personal boundaries they have imposed on themselves.  Through that project and through the school, I created a network in Cedar Rapids that helped me achieve what I never thought was possible.

At Iowa BIG, we have meetings once a week to connect with our groups and decide what we need to do to make progress, they assess our learning similar to a test or quiz.  The rest of the week, we work on our projects, have meetings in the community, work with our groups, do “customer discovery”, or go on tours in the community.  Last year and this year, I have learned how to communicate with adults that I will eventually work with, schedule meetings, deliver a speech (with an ask) to further my project, advocate for myself, manage my time, and work harder than I ever thought possible.  The freedom that Iowa BIG has built in is a key component of learning how to grow up and manage your time without someone telling you what to do.  It has been the greatest learning experience for me.

When this year is over, I will be really sad to graduate and leave BIG, but right now, I am working to leave an impression on the community and students to come.  One of my three projects is to “Make BIG Bigger”, or expand the BIG model so other students can enjoy school as much as I do.  My team is exploring what it would take to make another Iowa BIG and doing marketing for the school.  This project is so exciting to me because I can share what has made my high school experience with more students.

So Iowa BIG might not be for everyone, I understand that, but it definitely was for me.  I hope students find the thing that makes them love school, because I sure have and I’m so lucky.  I can’t wait to share that with others.

This Week at BIG


Customer discovery at NewBo Market. It is challenging to speak with people you’ve never met!

As school settles into a routine, we get many questions about the work of BIG students. What have our students been engaging in these last few weeks?

Right now we have thirty-two active projects, with community partners like the City of Cedar Rapids, EcoLips, Linn County Conservation, and Cedar Rapids Schools. Our students work in teams on projects like Making BIG Bigger and evaluating the Cedar River to control urban runoff. Others have been learning math and physics through their work with aquaponics. Others still are meeting with community members to investigate activities for teenagers and the revival of the Ellis Ice Rink.


Students and staff work as a team to challenge each other and create new solutions.

All of this investigation and learning is threaded with support from teaching staff for writing business emails, cold calling to set up appointments, and the best methods for locating quality research, in addition to instruction in a wide range of content areas. Team meetings are scheduled throughout the day, some beginning at 7:30 am and others at 4 pm. Our days at BIG continue to be challenging, innovative, and anything but routine!

Read Me!

Welcome to your first day of non-compulsory attendance!

You should be schedule your meetings with your groups. This process will not be super smooth; that’s ok.

ALSO! When you schedule a meeting, you must let know, so that we can put the meeting on our master calendar!

Iowa Lt. Governor Visits BIG


IMG_0349Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds spent some time visiting with BIG students and staff this summer. This is the second time she has been in Cedar Rapids to be a part of the work of BIG. The first time was last spring for student Kinzie Farmer’s project, SuccessSHE!

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