The sounds of minds at work were manifested in the hands of dozens of middle school students who showcased their imagination and ingenuity to Hilliard City Schools administrators and Amazon Web Services executives Dec. 12 at the Think Big Space on the district's Innovation Campus.

The Think Big Space has been open since the start of the school year in August, said district spokeswoman Stacie Raterman. The Dec. 12 event was a grand opening for the project.

"It's a place where I can let my imagination run wild," said Cory Hodgers, a seventh-grader at Weaver Middle School.

The Think Big Space was developed as a partnership between the district and Amazon Web Services, specifically AWS' InCommunities program focused on community stewardship, Raterman said.

The two Think Big classrooms are at the Innovative Learning Hub, 3859 Main St., which along with the Innovative Learning Center at 5323 Cemetery Road forms the district's Innovation Campus.

Think Big combines Hilliard's curriculum with Amazon's cloud-computing technology to provide an environment for students to explore career awareness, business, engineering, entrepreneurship, technology and design.

"We are just getting started and that it what is so cool. ... The most important thing we can do is give students a vision of what's possible," said Rich Boettner, chief technology officer for the district.

On Dec. 12, students from Heritage, Memorial and Weaver middle schools showed off projects they have built with guidance from the two Think Big lead teachers, Valerie Kulick-Brown and Geoff Konkus.

Though the teachers are there to provide guidance and safety, it is the students who come up with ideas about what to do, Kulick-Brown said.

"We give them the knowledge to use the tools, but conceptually, it's up (to the students) what they want to create," she said. "Students from all three middle schools can come together to share their ideas (and) magic can happen."

Conlan Daykin, a Memorial seventh-grader, used a programming language called Scratch to write the operating codes for a video game he named "Float Cat."

Loosely based on the "Flappy Bird" game, Conlan created a game in which the player must maintain the size of the cat to allow it to float at an even level.

"It can't get too big or too small," he said.

Tony Gano, a Weaver seventh-grader, used a program named Inventables to create what he called a "puzzle cube."

After writing dimensions for the shape of each puzzle piece, a computer numerical control router was used to cut each piece.

"I wanted to make a puzzle that I could travel with," Tony said.

Tony also wrote a program to make the CNC router engrave pingpong paddles with the logo for each district middle school and to personalize a paddle with his name on the handle.

About 150 middle school students began working in the Think Big Space this semester and an equal number will attend next semester, according to district officials.

The students were selected through a lottery after about 580 expressed interest, said Mark Tremayne, director of innovation and extended learning for the district.

Early next year, the district will identify high school clubs and allow after-school activities at the Think Big Space as the district explores how to meet the expected demand for the opportunities the two classrooms provide, he said.

This is "hands-on and minds-on learning," Tremayne said. "Organic learning plants a seed. We are raising the stakes (and) now will look to sustain it."

The Think Big Space, named for one of Amazon Web Services' leadership principles, is a new concept, according to Ken Eisner, director of worldwide education programs for AWS Educate.

AWS previously helped open a K-5 Think Big Space at an elementary school in Prince William County, Virginia, he said.

"AWS selected Hilliard City Schools as the first school district to launch a middle (school) and high school Think Big Space because of the district's cutting-edge thought leadership, highly diverse student population and support from the AWS InCommunities and AWS Educate teams," Eisner said.

The Think Big Space is one of several initiatives on which the district and AWS are collaborating on, Raterman said. AWS will sponsor Tech Week in the spring, hold a Future Family Tech Day and award STEAM scholarships to seniors from the three high schools, she said.

Superintendent John Marschhausen said the Think Big Space opened about 18 months after the district first approached AWS with the idea.

The district reached out to AWS in part because of its data centers in Hilliard, Tremayne said.

Amazon built its first data-center building in 2016 at Britton Parkway and Hayden Run Road. Another followed, and a third is under construction.

The Think Big Space is the epitome of the district's motto of preparing students to be "ready for tomorrow," Marschhausen said.

"Our students learn differently than we did as parents," Marschhausen said.

He said Hilliard educators are helping students prepare for postgraduate education and careers that in some instances are not even quantifiable today.

"The Think Big Space creates experimental learning for students to explore interests and develop essential life skills. It's a wonderful blend of academics and creativity," Marschhausen said.

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