Potential Iowa BIG North students explore projects they are passionate about

By Bob Steenson, bsteenson@charlescitypress.com

A new weight room … kids spending too much time on “screens” … school lunches … not enough activities available outside of school … parking lot problems … bullying … too few class options … making sports safer … more art in school.

A wide range of concerns garnered student interest at an Iowa BIG North “hackathon” held last week in Charles City. Many of the concerns dealt with issues that are part of the students’ daily lives.

Iowa BIG North brings together students from different schools to work on initiatives they are passionate about.

The hackathon last week was designed to see where some of those passions lie, and to give prospective IBN students a chance to see if the program interests them, said Mike Kuennen, an Iowa BIG North facilitator and CTE teacher at New Hampton High School.

“They’re coming up with something that, it bothers them so much that when we talk about them working on it, it wouldn’t matter if it were at 8 o’clock at night, or if it was on a Saturday, “ Kuennen said.

Later, addressing the entire group of about 100 students, he told them, “From here on out you need to disregard your peer group. You have to forget about ‘I want to do something with my friends,’ because if that’s what your focus is, then the traditional school setting will be fine. That will work for you.

“What needs to drive this is what you know you want to do,” Kuennen said. “As we walk around here, there are going to be some awesome initiatives that come out of this hackathon. Some folks have really looked inside of themselves and they know ‘I can fix this,’ so I can’t wait to see that.”

Students from the four original Iowa BIG North member schools — Charles City, New Hampton, Osage and Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock — were joined at the hackathon by students from Riceville.

Another hackathon in April will add Turkey Valley students.

One of two Iowa STEM BEST grants Iowa BIG North received included funding to expand the program, Kuennen said.

Students from the member schools in grades 10 and 11 are invited to a hackathon prior to registering for next school year’s classes so they can decide if Iowa BIG North interests them. If they decide to participate in the program then working on the selected initiatives provides the curriculum.

Initiatives are either inbound or outbound, Kuennen said. The hackathons develop inbound projects suggested by the students.

“What we’re talking about today won’t get enacted until next fall if these students take it. If they walk away from here today and say, ‘hey, this isn’t my gig,’ (those students’ initiatives) may never come to fruit,” he said.

In the fall, students who are taking part in Iowa BIG North will hold a “Partner Palooza” where area businesses will present outbound problems they would like students to help them solve.

Three dozen area businesses and organizations have worked with Iowa BIG North on past initiatives.

The purpose of Iowa BIG North is to bring together students from different school districts to work collaboratively with business professionals on as many contextually rich experiences as possible, developing real-world problem-solving skills, according to information from the program.