Iowa BIG, Trace Pickering


Send business and community leaders back to school for a day; not as observers, not as guests, but as students. In 2012-13, 60 local business and community leaders got the “Billy Madison” treatment. After their back-to-school experience, they shared reflections and insights and emerged with a set of principles for the kind of schools they wanted for their kids. These principals became the backbone of Iowa BIG:

  • Use student passion to drive deep learning and deliver core academic

  • Engage students in authentic community projects, problems, and opportunities

  • Connect them deeply to the people and resources of the Cedar Rapids Tech Corridor

Iowa BIG brings these principles to life by bridging the gap between learners and their community. It turns the challenges and problems that face Cedar Rapids’ businesses, nonprofits, and community organizations into learning opportunities for high school kids.

This knocks down the traditional walls of school.

Learners at Iowa BIG generate new innovations, solve problems for their neighbors, and think critically about the challenges of their community. Started in 2013, this program coordinates with the area’s high schools to have learners split their time between traditional classes and Iowa BIG projects. These projects originate from companies and organizations that have untapped ideas and challenges they can’t resource. So, when an Iowa BIG learner takes up the challenge—it’s a win-win.

When working on their projects, learners come to a co-located space in downtown Cedar Rapids—putting them side by side with local entrepreneurs and million dollar companies. This co-working space has a profound effect on learners. When they’re at Iowa BIG, they aren’t just students—they’re inventors, creators, designers. And they know no limits.

Even when they return to their traditional high schools, their work and accomplishments follow them. Iowa BIG is a fully competency-based environment. Learners are tracked standard-by-standard as they move through their projects, ensuring the highest level of mastery.

As learners explore the possibilities of their projects, highly qualified staff record experiences and products using proprietary software to ensure progress. Rather than build a pre-fabbed curriculum, at Iowa BIG their community is their curriculum.

Iowa BIG now has nearly 100 learners on board and is collaborating with 120+ business partners. Together they’re working on 40+ different initiatives. The learners have innovated and created in the fields of marketing, computer science, public works, STEM, advanced manufacturing, environmental issues, logistics, and many more. At Iowa BIG, real life starts now.

Dr. Trace Pickering, Executive Director and Co-Founder

Dr. Trace Pickering was on the design team that created Iowa BIG. He is the administrator of record for the school, advises students, and acquires resources to ensure student project success.Trace has a passion for transforming education and building human-centered systems that help every learner realize their full potential.

Trace founded Iowa BIG with his colleague and friend, Shawn Cornally, and two courageous and forward-thinking Board of Education members. He is the administrator of record for the school, ensures BIG staff have the room necessary to exercise their professional expertise and drive the shared Iowa BIG vision forward, and enjoys engaging and interacting with the amazing kids who honor us by choosing to be a part of the learning at BIG.


Beyond the Classroom



Pathways High
3022 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53208
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No person may be denied admission to any public school or be denied participation in, be denied the benefits of or be discriminated against in any curricular, extracurricular, pupil services, recreational or other program or activity because of the person's sex, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability.