THINC Academy

Most high schools are designed with a cookie-cutter approach "that can be reproduced easily," architectural intern Ashley Smith believes. But that's not the case with the new THINC College & Career Academy in LaGrange, Ga.

In a clear example of form following function, the school's unique design reflects the distinctiveness of its curriculum — and this design is intended to support and inspire a whole new kind of learning.

"We wanted to give the space a fun vibe that would be stimulating for teens," said Smith, who works at Smith Design Group in LaGrange.

Housed in a building on the campus of West Georgia Technical College, THINC looks nothing like a traditional high school. Instead, it has the look and feel of a Google office space, with brightly colored carpet tiles, glass walls and stylish furniture that can be moved around easily to create flexible workspaces.

The school's innovative design has a clear purpose behind it. Students will be working in teams to complete hands-on, authentic projects related to one of five career paths: mechatronics, energy and engineering, marketing, business, and health care. In response, designers wanted a space that seemed "more professional" than a typical high school, Smith said—one that evokes a sense of professionalism from students while also inspiring creativity.

THINC resides in "an in-between area between high school and the real world," she noted.

The academy, which serves students from the three high schools in Georgia's Troup County, is among more than three dozen college and career academies in the state that aim to prepare students for 21st-century careers.

Students attend this public charter school for half the school day, while they attend their traditional high school for the other half.

When students walk into the building, they are greeted by a giant robotic apparatus donated by Kia Motors, one of the school's many corporate sponsors. High-tech tools like this aren't just available for students to use in the school's mechatronics and engineering labs; they're also embedded in the design of its common spaces.

Vibrant colors are everywhere. The hallways are adorned with abstract works of art created by students from local high schools. There are 18 different colors of carpet alone, thanks to $100,000 in carpet tiles donated by local carpet manufacturer Interface, another corporate sponsor.

"The whole space breathes this atmosphere of creativity and excitement," Smith said. She added: "Atmosphere plays a big part in architecture — but that's often lost in the institutional prototype for education."

Designers have taken great care to make the school's learning spaces a reflection of the workplaces they emulate. For example, the health care classroom includes a waiting area, a triage area, and beds separated by hanging curtains for patient care.

"We wanted it to look and feel like a true hospital emergency room," said Director Chris Williams, who serves as the school's principal.

The school's furniture also plays a critical role in its design. Designers wanted tables and chairs that could be moved around easily and arranged in flexible groupings to support student collaboration. They approached a local company, Loy's Office Supplies, which recommended the EDU 2.0 line of furniture from Bretford.

"A key differentiator was the availability of power supplies in all of Bretford's furniture," said Chad Williams, vice president of Loy's.

THINC students are allowed to use their own laptops, tablets, and smart phones in support of their learning. Throughout its classrooms and common areas, the school contains communal docking stations and tables with video monitors, where students can plug in their devices and share their screens as they work together on projects.

There are also many soft, comfortable chairs with built-in power outlets where students can work independently or in small groups.

"When I was in school, 80 percent of my creative thought came outside the classroom, in discussions with other students about what we'd just learned," Smith explained. "Those outside-of-class relaxation spaces provide an environment where the ideas are still churning."

The school's innovative design and technology-enabled furniture will facilitate a new kind of learning experience, in which students will be working in teams to design and build parts for forestry machines, market a college radio station, or even launch their own start-up company.

With the design of these learning spaces, "we're creating a different perception of what we're asking kids to do," said Robby Birch, director of customer care for Interface and a board member for the academy. "It's not school as they know it."

About the Author

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at [email protected].