The Bluestem Institute - A Chronology


August - 2012

The Bluestem Institute was conceived in the fall of 2012. While attending Approaching Walden, a summer professional development experience for educators at the Thoreau Institute in Concord, Massachusetts, Mr. Brekke met with educators from around the country to learn more about Henry David Thoreau and to explore new ways to teach Walden. He met teachers from the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and from the Rivers and Revolutions program at Concord-Carlisle High School who were teaching interdisciplinary courses that combined coursework in Environmental Science, Social Studies, and English. 

Upon returning from Walden, Brekke initiated conversations with Principal Spence Evans, Mr. Todd, and Mr. Zmolek about creating an interdisciplinary program at Ames High School. Todd was already using Project-Based Learning in his Environmental Studies and Biology classes. Zmolek's background in Environmental Studies and his focus on issues of social justice were a natural fit. With encouragement from Principal Evans, Brekke, Todd and Zmolek met weekly for over a year to discuss pedagogy, interdisciplinary possibilities, and logistics. 


January - 2014

Following final exams in January 2014, Brekke, Todd and Zmolek took a field trip to meet with teachers and administrators from the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota. They observed classes, discussed curriculum and learned about the 20-year history of the partnership between the school district, the city of Apple Valley, and the Minnesota Zoo. Mindful of the need to start small and plan for the future, the Ames teachers began shaping a vision for how to create a "school within a school" at Ames High. Brekke, Todd & Zmolek continue to meek weekly, shaping the missing, pedagogical approach, and branding of the new offering within the school.  


January - 2015

Brekke, Todd and Zmolek returned to the School of Environmental Studies with Principal Spence Evans for another site visit in January of 2014.  Meetings with students, teachers, and administrators helped refine the vision for the Bluestem Institute at Ames High and gave Principal Evans an opportunity to see interdisciplinary studies in action. 

The Bluestem approach and pedagogy were formalized and unit plans began to take shape. Knowing it would be essential to receive critiques and feedback on major projects and unit plans, the Bluestem team applied for professional development support to attend the Buck Institute's annual PBL World conference in June to vet their plans.   

PBL World.jpg

June - 2015

Brekke and Todd traveled to Napa, California, in June of 2015 to attend the Buck Institute's PBL World. They were inspired by meeting other educators from around the world implementing project-based learning in authentic and inspiring ways, such as Stephen Ritz of the Green Bronx Machine. Because of their conference experience, Brekke and Todd revised the Water Project unit plan, making it more authentic in design and deliverables.


June - 2015

During a break from PBL World, Todd re-connected with Douglas and Laura Gayeton of the Lexicon of Sustainability and Project Localize at their California goat farm / art studio. They had worked with Todd and his students in the past, composing informational art works about the local food system. On this social visit, Todd and Brekke described their plans for the Water Project. Gayeton volunteered to come to Ames and teach students about composition and how to create information art works.  

Ben & Sophie in Prairie.jpeg

September - 2015

With 60 students and three instructors, the Bluestem Institute began, inviting students and teachers to transcend the traditional classroom environment and explore our relationship to the natural world. One of the first field studies included a walk through Pohl Memorial Prairie, a 27-acre tallgrass remnant prairie managed by The Nature Conservancy and local volunteers including Mr. Todd and his classes. Just a few steps beyond the doors of the Ames High Media Center, the prairie is home to hundreds of native Iowa plant species. 

September - 2015

Part of the Bluestem orientation included practice collaborating with others to complete complex tasks. During one of our early field studies, Story County Conservation Naturalist Heather Hucka offered students instructions on how to start a fire without matches. Using only flint knapping tools and the fuel within reach at McFarland Park, many groups were able to utilize her tips to light a fire. Other groups learned from failure.    


October - 2015

In October, students were immersed in The Water Project, a semester-long investigation into Iowa's most pressing environmental issue. They began in our back yard, testing water samples on the banks of Squaw Creek, a 5-minute walk south from Ames High. The project invited students to explore the intersection of science, government policy, the local economy and the local narratives that exist regarding farming and conservation. Corn and soybean farming is Iowa’s most visible and widespread economic industry. Student inquiries illuminated the complexities of water quality management and exemplified the way systems - both human and biological systems - are inextricably linked. 


November - 2015

In addition to testing water and examining the external landscape, Bluestem students were also encouraged to explore the internal landscape - their own personal reactions and reflections on the world as they experience it. Regular Observation Journal assignments invited students to develop their writing fluency - their ability to translate their observations, thoughts, and feelings into sentences on the page.

One student wrote, "When I first started writing these journals, I wasn’t very fond of it. I thought it was a burden; a waste of twenty or thirty minutes I’d never get back. But now, I look forward to them. They help me deal with the things that otherwise fly around in my head; problems and worries and sadness that lurk in my mind, waiting for a moment of weakness so they can lash out and take their toll on my life. Journaling helps me to put them in perspective; to look at them and see them for what they are; just thoughts. I have control over my life; I have control over what happens to me."

December - 2015

Practicing public speaking and presentation skills, Bluestem students held a dress rehearsal for their Water Project exhibition, rehearsing with a live audience of graduate faculty and students from the Iowa State University School of Agriculture, including Iowa Water Center Director Rick Cruse. The students received critical feedback regarding the composition of their information artworks and their verbal presentations. Students revised and polished their work before the final printing and exhibition at the Iowa Water Conference. 

Zmolek in Santa Fe for Inquiry and Engagement

January - 2016

Always seeking ways to improve their teaching and increase engagement, Zmolek and Brekke traveled to Santa Fe to attend a Heinemann multi-day institute called "Teaching for Engagement, Inquiry, and Understanding: Reaching Beyond the Standards." The featured presenters included Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, Nancy Steineke, Christopher Lehman of Ed Collaborative, Kristin Ziemke, and Sara Ahmed of Facing History. Techniques from the conference were immediately infused into the Bluestem curriculum as students were invited to conduct inquiry projects related to the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis. 


February - 2016

Students juggled multiple independent and group projects throughout the year. In addition to revising their digital compositions and preparing presentations for the Water Project, students formed larger groups to conduct a crowd-funding campaign through Barnraiser to fund professional-quality printing and framing of their posters and to help cover travel costs to future exhibitions. They conducted inquiry projects examining the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, conducted independent reading projects, and participated in Socratic Seminars while reading Dan Fagan's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.  


March - 2016

Bluestem students presented their information artworks to an authentic audience at the 10th Annual Iowa Water Conference at the Scheman Building on the Iowa State University campus. Water quality professionals from throughout the Midwest gather at the conference every March to share and glean insights into "the human dimensions of water-resources management." Students elected a small group of their classmates to represent them at a breakout session describing the Water Project before all conference attendees were invited to hear presentations from each small group during an exhibition. 


April - 2016

As students began designing and conducting their own Community Impact Projects, they also continued to honor invitations to exhibit their work at various sites, including a trip to the State Capitol in Des Moines to urge legislators to pass legislation to "Fund the Trust" for water quality on behalf of IWILL - Iowa's Water and Land Legacy coalition.


May - 2016

With warmer temperatures returning, we moved our classroom outside as much as possible. In order to learn more about erosion control, students dug in with shovels and hoes to build a swale at Mustard Seed Community Farm. 


May - 2016

As the capstone of their senior year, Bluestem students conceived, designed and conducted their own community impact projects, collaborating with community members to address a need they identified in our local area. They presented their projects at a public exhibition at the Ames Public Library. Students worked with community members to enhance hospice service with therapy dogs, to reduce exposure to toxins in receipts, and to reduce energy waste by engaging community members at the City of Ames annual Eco Fair with a quick quiz to determine their "Energy Score."     


July - 2016

Our partners at Project Localize chronicled the Bluestem students' Water Project in a microsite connected to their larger work, "The Lexicon of Water." The students' information artworks were featured in the film Don't Drink the Water to help tell the story of the current water quality crisis in Iowa. 


September - 2016

The Iowa Water Center and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture invited the Bluestem Institute to collaborate on a three-year grant to develop science projects for high schools throughout Iowa based on the Bluestem framework.