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Susan Gentz: Iowa ALN gives schools the tools needed to succeed

Iowa is a top state when it comes to education. I hear this all the time, and while Iowa historically has done well, assessment scores that are coming out of our high schools today seem to prove otherwise.

I first want to clarify that I do not believe that a summative assessment once a year is an accurate calculation of how prepared students are for the workforce, and please also know that I have all the confidence in the world that we can get back to that top place- and the Iowa Authentic Learning Network (IALN) will play a major role in helping us get there.

Over a year ago I wrote a piece for Clay & Milk titled “What if there was no Curriculum?” I still believe in this model, and that the IALN will be the tool that helps us go from a handful of districts preparing students for the future workforce, to a statewide network that provides equity and access for every student.

What is the IALN?

IALN is a network for local school districts by Great Prairie AEA, Green Hills AEA and other joining AEA regions around the state.

The goal of IALN is to provide resources and support to schools that are interested in implementing authentic projects and problem-based learning framework into their curriculum to provide students an alternative pathway to receive academic credit.

In response to #futureready Iowa, Great Prairie AEA and Green Hills AEA partnered together to create a program for students to experience 21st-century learning through the development of authentic learning experiences with area businesses, industry, and other organizations. Their vision is to provide students the opportunity to explore their passions, engage with experts while learning and applying 21st-century skills that prepare them for their future within the K-12 setting.

Districts around Iowa have been working on creating real-life opportunities for students to learn, grow and sometimes even fail. These learning experiences often bring to life concepts that might otherwise not be understood, and can also spur students into fields where there is a high demand for employees as we continue to see technology take hold of new industry after new industry. Not only do students understand why they need to know math formulas, but also have drive to ensure they do it correctly- real employers and customers are depending on them to deliver. Higher stakes are driving students to aspired to more than a “passing grade”.

Pockets of innovation happen frequently in our technology age, but many advances stop at the stage of scaling. IALN would put Iowa on the map as one of the first state to implement opportunities statewide.

How does the IALN Work?

 The IALN curates a project pool for students to work on and connects them with a project from a business partner that the student has an interest in working on. A major part of ensuring the success of the IALN is having an abundance of projects for students to choose from. This is where the startup and entrepreneurship community come in. The IALN is looking for help populating the project-pool. There are benefits for both the students and community partners.

Top Takeaways for Students:

  • Networking opportunities
  • Exposure and direction for college and career opportunities
  • Working on real projects of value
  • Freedom to explore their passions
  • Learning expectations in a professional environment
  • Communication skills and confidence
  • Academic Credit

Value Creation for Business Partners:

  • Contributing to development of future professionals
  • Problem Solving
  • Getting things done that otherwise may not due to time and resources
  • Highlighting industry and business for marketing and workforce recruitment
  • Engagement and energy of staff when working with students
  • Opportunity to develop new leadership within the company while supervising student teams
  • Networking opportunities with other business partners
  • Fresh, innovative insight

If you have a job that a high school student could both help you with and learn from, please fill out this “Partners of Authentic Learning” form so that the IALN can connect you with a student that has a desire to work on the need you have.

Also to note along these lines is coming this spring an online statewide project board created through AEA Learning Online to post projects will be available to find student teams with ease; however, if you have a project now, please don’t delay in reaching out to the IALN team!

The value of authentic learning experiences is real. If we want to fill the high demand jobs of the future, we must prepare students today. Please consider how you might be able to support students who are interested in learning a skill that you have to offer. The rewards are great for both parties involved.

Susan Gentz is founder & owner of BSG Strategies and is a contributing writer for Clay & Milk.


  • Ben Milne
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 10:07 am

    This is a really nice article, Susan. Standardized tests were always a powerful way to demotivate me in school. Regardless of how hard I tried I was massively unsuccessful with ITBS in school as one example. I simply didn’t perform well on the tests and ended up deciding I wouldn’t be successful in school because of my performance on tests in general.

    I will definitely think about some work we can send to the IALN team because of this article. Thanks for writing it.

  • Susan Gentz
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 11:04 am

    Thanks, Ben! Same here on the assessments- I was a student that had to try really hard to get pretty average grades. I remember my school giving “golden tickets” to try and up the scores for ITBS/ITEDS and even though I always took it seriously I never got one- which then made me feel even worse. A vicious cycle.

    Thank you for sending on opportunities- and please share with others you may know that might also want to be involved.

Comments are closed.

Susan Gentz: Iowa ALN gives schools the tools needed to succeed | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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