New lab encourages Canaan Middle School students to Think Big

Photo courtesy of Ira Graham III Photography & Films
Students, school staff, Amazon Web Services representatives, and local and state elected officials cut the ribbon on Canaan Middle School’s Think Big Space.

(Posted Nov. 29, 2023)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

One group develops a board game using modeling clay circuits to make parts of the board light up.

Another group, while operating remote-control spheres with internal gears that stay upright no matter which way the spheres roll, brainstorms ways to apply the engineering to real-world problems, like protecting passengers in car rollovers or preventing rollovers altogether.

A trio explains the math and biology behind the way station they created to support Monarch butterflies on their annual 2,000-mile migration.

The presenters and innovators are fifth- and sixth-graders at Canaan Middle School in the Jonathan Alder School District, and the occasion is the Nov. 13 grand opening of the second Think Big Space in the district.

Sponsored and supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Think Big Spaces are classrooms/labs that encourage students to take deep dives into exploring their interests and dreaming about their futures. With a focus on STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as the arts–AWS works with partner schools to design and equip the rooms and develop programs and curriculum.

Photo courtesy of Ira Graham III Photography & Films
Students explore the new Think Big Space, sponsored by Amazon Web Services, at Canaan Middle School.

“We provide current technology that is grade, age, and learner appropriate,” said Tim Harman, AWS community engagement manager. The company also provides mentors that collaborate with and support teachers.

To date, AWS has sponsored 40 Think Big Spaces worldwide, 20 of which are located at Ohio schools. Two of those 20 are in the Jonathan Alder School District. All of them provide hands-on STEM learning through robotics, coding, 3D modeling, and the like.

The first Jonathan Alder Think Big Space opened in 2021 at the high school. It serves grades K-12 and the community. Students use the space on a rotating basis, with the younger students bussed in for their sessions. Over the last two years, thousands of students and hundreds of parents, school staff members, and area residents have experienced the space.

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Sixth-graders Paige Harrington (left) and Owen Hanna work to design a board game as part of a Think Big Space project at Canaan Middle School.

Emily Byers, Jonathan Alder’s STEM facilitator, said she has seen students gain confidence in trying new things, think creatively, develop deeper understandings of their interests and possible career paths, and even experience a sense of belonging through the Think Big Space.

“After the first year of the program, I knew I wanted to provide more,” she said.

With AWS on board, the Jonathan Alder team spent the past year prepping for the Think Big Space at Canaan Middle School. They made modules that promote STEM skill-building. They also enlisted the help of students without the students knowing they were helping to design the space.

“We asked them to brainstorm their best maker spaces. It was hypothetical to them, but we actualized their ideas,” said Byers, adding the students were thrilled to find out they played an integral role in developing the space, formerly a project room adjacent to Canaan Middle School’s library.

Canaan students spend time in the Think Big Space every three days. Byers said the students look forward to that time.

“Our kids are excited,” she said. “They are learning and don’t even know they are learning.”

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Sixth-graders Luke Beachy and Brady Ackels familiarize themselves with gadgets known as “sphero bolts.” They control the spheres remotely using iPads. The gadgets are meant to inspire students to apply the technology to solve real-world problems.

Fully engaged, the students are gaining knowledge that sticks, she added.

“We’re guiding students toward a design-thinking mindset,” said Hannah Rings, Canaan’s Think Big Space teacher.

AWS strives to remove barriers for students through the Think Big Spaces, Harman stated, allowing them to not only thrive but also learn how to handle failure and setbacks.

State Rep. Brian Stewart was among the guests at the Canaan Think Big Space grand opening. He said “workforce” and “STEM” are big buzzwords at the State House. He thanked AWS for investing in the communities in which they locate their facilities by partnering with schools.

State Senator Stephanie Kunze mentioned AWS’s growth in the region. She applauded AWS and Jonathan Alder Schools for “elevating students, staff, and the future workforce.”

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
With State Rep. Brian Stewart observing, Nathan Cosgrove (center) and Ryleigh Timberlake–sixth-graders at Canaan Middle School–demonstrate their invention to help a dog let its owner, who is blind, know when he needs to go out for a restroom break.
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