Stilwill excited about rain forest challenge

Former state official named project's director of learning

By Vanessa Miller

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 20, 2004

He has been encouraging people for the past nine years to think differently and take on new challenges.

"And this is an opportunity for me to practice what I've been preaching," said Ted Stilwill, newly appointed director of learning for the $180 million Iowa Environmental/Education Project.

Officials announced at a press conference Thursday morning that Stilwill, who has headed the state's education system as director of the Iowa Department of Education since 1995, will apply his extensive knowledge and experience to the Coralville project.

"This is a red-letter day," project chief administrator David Oman said after the event. "To have someone of his national stature. ... We are elated Ted Stilwill has agreed to join our team. He brings credibility, knowledge, contacts and vision."

Ted Stilwill

Director, Iowa Department of Education, 1995- Aug. 12, 2004 (retired).

Administrator, Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, Iowa Department of Education, 1988-1995.

Council Bluffs School District, 1970-1988, elementary teacher, elementary/junior high assistant principal, elementary principal, assistant director of curriculum and instruction, executive director of educational services.

The announcement of Stilwill's new job, a full-time position with a $140,000 salary that begins Sept. 1, comes just one week after the 56-year-old Clive resident took early retirement from his position leading and supervising the state's education system, which includes 520,000 students in public or private K-12 schools, 106,000 students in 15 community colleges and 4,000 employees in education agencies.

"I've been in public education my whole life in Iowa, and it's a great place to work," Stilwill said.

"But some things we are going to push ahead to the next level," he said. "We will do some non-traditional things. I've always been interested in science, and this opportunity to impact science education is compelling for me."

The project is proposed for a 30-acre site southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. Inside a translucent dome stretching three football fields in length and rising 18 stories, visitors will be able to experience a 4.5-acre re-created rain forest, stand before a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium, view public art and browse informational galleries. Officials also intend to use up to 50,000 square feet for an educational component to include research and teaching space.

It is that focus on learning and education that makes Stilwill's advent essential to the success of what many think will become one of the greatest research and instruction facilities in the world, according to project officials.

"This is building our fabulous educational heritage in Iowa," said Ted Townsend, a Des Moines businessman who founded the Environmental/Education Project and the Great Ape Trust of Iowa -- a Des Moines-based world-class research center studying apes' intelligence.

"These two projects are delivering to our state unique distinctions. There are a lot of projects in Iowa, and we love them all, but these are the only two that are unique," Townsend said, adding that the research both facilities can produce will be rare in the world. "The knowledge generated in Coralville will be disseminated to every parent, teacher and student on Earth who wants it."

Oman said officials expect to have funding in place by the end of the year. If everything proceeds according to plan, he said, officials could break ground on the project at the end of the year, begin heavy construction in 2005 and open the facility in 2008.

With crucial pieces falling into place, Stilwill said he has much to do.

"Iowa is absolutely the best state to work in with education. There is a commitment to education ... in Iowa that you don't find in any other state," he said. "But you can't be content with what we've always done. We must break through with more education, ... and there is not a better vehicle to do that with than this project."

Stilwill said the project will provide a laboratory that can change the way students learn and the methods teacher use. He said it will increase the success of students moving on to institutes of higher education.

"I view the career change I'm making as more exciting than anything I've ever done," he said.