There’s a classroom in Prince William County, Virginia, where kids are having so much fun, they tend to forget they’re actually in school.
Whether they’re playing the role of geologist for a day and making their own rocks, or experimenting as a scientist using augmented reality software to examine plant cells, the students who come to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Think Big Space at River Oaks Elementary School are learning in a place that isn’t like an ordinary classroom.
The River Oaks lab is one of more than 60 Think Big Spaces around the world. These AWS-sponsored educational spaces provide a place beyond the typical classroom where students can explore and cultivate an interest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) subjects.
The technology, curriculum—even the furniture—promote hands-on learning in a Think Big Space. These spaces are located in regions like eastern Oregon and central Ohio in the U.S.; Dublin, Ireland; Mumbai, India; and Sydney, Australia and elsewhere globally. Today, these out-of-the-box education labs provide STEAM education access to more than 70,000 students.
“I tell the kids that they could be a game changer—a world changer—in this room,” said Bill Nau, an innovative technology teacher for the River Oaks lab, which is dedicated to hands-on STEAM education for kindergarten (students) through fifth graders. “You could be an astronomer or an engineer or a geologist. I want to give our students an opportunity to see what the future holds for them.”
This Think Big Space, made up of two brightly colored classrooms with cutting-edge technology in the elementary school, was the first of its kind when AWS partnered with the district in 2019 to create it.
“We are thoughtful and intentional about the ways we partner with schools, parents, and students to make a positive impact,” said Cornelia Robinson, global head of Inclusion and Outreach at AWS.
Robinson was one of several AWS employees who brainstormed with Prince William County Schools leaders when the Think Big Space concept was initially imagined. The group wanted to bring STEAM education to students who might not otherwise have access to it, and they wanted to invest in communities where AWS has a significant local presence with data centers and other facilities.
“We are a member of this community. We have employees that work and live right here in Prince William County,” said Wilberte Paul, a community engagement manager at AWS. “So we want to be good neighbors and invest in the community.”
The River Oaks Elementary and AWS partnership is deeply rooted, with ongoing investment in the school’s facilities, technology and programs since the space first opened. Through a donation from AWS, this space was recently revamped, including the addition of a new book vending machine, and additional classrooms and teachers were funded.
Since 2019, two other nearby schools have created similar Think Big Spaces with AWS.
As for River Oaks, it is now providing STEAM access to another 20 Title 1 schools across Prince William County through regular field trips hosted by the STEM/Spark program, a collaboration with the Children’s Science Center Lab in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Prince William County Schools.
The River Oaks space has become a model for Think Big Spaces globally.
“We have very similar conversations with schools around the world where teachers are facing similar challenges, and they want to provide their students with state-of-the-art technology and learning,” Robinson said. “Teachers want their students to have an understanding of what they can be and where they can go. And the teachers need a way to make it real for their students."
As Robinson and her team have scaled educational resources across four continents, they also stay focused on providing for the specific needs in each local community.
For example, in Navi Mumbai, India, they take the project-based learning lab on the road to bring hands-on science and technology education to thousands of students attending schools without permanent lab facilities. In Ireland, a Think Big Space was developed in a community space in collaboration with the South Dublin County Council, so any primary or secondary level school in the area, as well as the wider community, can access it. And in Sydney, the first Think Big Space in the country launched in 2022 at an all-girls school with a focus on nurturing digital skills among girls.
What’s the next big thing for AWS Think Big Spaces?
Robinson expects to see more cross-pollination and collaboration among instructors and students involved in the program globally.
At River Oaks Elementary, Nau expects the renovations of the original Think Big Space will energize students when they visit at upcoming lab sessions—whether they’re learning to create snap electrical circuits, studying animal habitats, or using new dry erase boards to jot down their own big ideas for the future.
“With the Think Big Spaces, you have an infrastructure that supports the sort of learning that's bigger than all of us,” Robinson said. “Students will be the ones who lead the way. They're going to be the ones who think big, and we're going to follow them.”
To learn more about how AWS is making a difference in communities, visit AWS inCommunities.