Hands-on learning approach targets student interests

ASCEND students spend part of their time at The Bridge in Storm Lake.

By Megan Molseed, Storm Lake Times Pilot

For the last couple of years, the Storm Lake school district has been working to cultivate the Ascend program. ASCEND, short for Ambitious Students Creatively Exploring New Directions, has been providing students with hands-on experiences across various projects, marking a transformative journey in education.

As social studies teacher Peter Leo describes it, the program’s goal is to allow students to advance through the curriculum by demonstrating their skills and knowledge anytime, anywhere, and in ways that are “relevant to their interests.”


In the program, the ASCEND students work through the curriculum by demonstrating their skills and knowledge, “anytime, anywhere,” Leo says. The instructor adds that the program is designed to help the students learn through projects that are relevant to their interests. A hands-on approach that takes the students out of the classroom, simply following a teacher’s instruction.

As of last spring, 63 credits have been awarded.

ASCEND came out of COVID

Mel Fisher, director of student services and ASCEND director, said the program started a few years ago as a discussion about how the district could better serve the students.

“We saw after COVID that traditional school wasn’t the best fit for all kids,” Fisher said.

“We started brainstorming ways to get more student engagement while getting students out into the community for job shadows and internships,” Fisher adds. “The idea of a competency-based program started to take shape and over the last two years we have been working on mastering our craft and learning the best ways to engage and empower students.”

Since then, over 100 students have benefited from the ASCEND program, engaging in projects such as building Gaga pits and contributing to the community through internships, Fisher said.


“We are trying to challenge students to be problem solvers and independent and forward thinkers,” Fisher explains. “We want students to be presented with a problem and know how to go about solving it, or at least how to come up with solutions to try solving the problem.”

Masin Peter and Jonathan Jovel work on one of the Gaga ball pits created through the ASCEND program.

Gaga pits and more

“We had students demonstrate their learning by applying their knowledge of geometry to design and build the new Gaga pits you may have seen in the city parks around town, or on the school grounds,” Leo says, adding that the students also constructed a unique set of planter boxes for Storm Lake School District’s Early Elementary STEM class.

Sandy Mouw, the personalized language arts teacher, emphasizes ASCEND’s role in guiding students toward relevant paths beyond high school.

Mouw’s experience at ASCEND has been shaped by over 200 students who have gained confidence in personalized learning and navigating competencies in innovative ways. She notes, “ASCEND classes are built around the passions students already have.”

Mouw notes that the program aims to help students “find relevant paths to their goals outside of high school.” This, the instructor says, includes “supporting them where they are at to help them move forward. The ASCEND program is designed to fit all interested students.


“Students who have gotten comfortable as ASCEND students have designed their ways of meeting competencies,” she says.

“For example, a student who was studying women’s literature chose to interview a college professor and create a podcast synthesizing the information she had learned in the class,” she continues. “I didn’t require her to interview anyone, she designed how she wanted to learn the curriculum.”

“The kids who have participated say they enjoy the flexibility that comes from being able to negotiate deadlines that fit into their schedules and extracurricular activities,” Leo agrees.

This year the ASCEND students went a bit further, working with iJAG — Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates — to help students meet English competencies in grades 9-12. 

“Also, the literature competency-based education class read Old Man and the Sea and after acting out scenes and making the novella come alive, we decided to try Restaurante La Esquina del Sabor where we dined out, enjoying each other’s company, an important part of communication skills,” Mouw says. “We are looking to educate the whole student, not just a slice of their life in compartmentalized units of time.”

As with all new ideas such as this one, challenges persist as the ASCEND continues to grow.

ASCEND students Jermey Sercy and Theo Khounviengxay work on a podcast at BVU with Andrea Frantz.

Giving students control

Leo highlights the struggle in explaining competency-based learning’s distinction from traditional education while Fisher recognizes the difficulty of pushing students out of their comfort zones and into self-directed learning.

“The kids are used to being told exactly what to do, how to do it, with whom they are doing it, and when it’s happening,” Leo explains.

Leo adds that giving students some control over key details is a different experience for many students:

“It takes some time for kids to get used to it, and depending on the student it can take a few weeks or even a few months.”

Mouw acknowledges that English competencies still require traditional skills, but the program focuses on giving students the opportunities to incorporate choice and voice.

“ASCEND classes are built around the passions students already have to meet English requirements,” Mouw said.

“English competencies still involve reading, writing, speaking and listening, and students who don’t like those areas of education still have to master those skills, but we try to do it in ways where students have choice and voice,” she said. “(We) appreciate the students who were willing to try something new, to get outside their comfort zones and to honestly share what worked and what didn’t work.”

“This is a long-term project that will take more time to fully blossom,” Leo said. “But in the short term, it has been fun and rewarding to see the kids begin to discover their agency and embrace it.”

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