ThinSchool seeks to help South Carolina meet its future workforce needs

A new concept that aims to develop courses for 6th through 12th grade students in South Carolina, introducing them to emerging and prospective technologies, problem solving, and design thinking techniques, is being pioneered in the Upstate.

October 12, 2017

South Carolina’s talent pipeline could soon have a new feeder.

Upstate entrepreneur Craig Kinley and his business partner Snowil Lopes have founded a new education platform called ThinSchool to help the region and state fill its future workforce needs.

The concept aims to develop courses for 6th through 12th grade students that introduce them to emerging and prospective technologies, problem solving, and design thinking techniques.

Kinley and Lopes said they want to establish partnerships with industries and technical and four-year colleges to prepare students for advanced science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

They hope to enrich the soil where employers in the Palmetto State can harvest skilled, innovative workers prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

“ThinSchool is about building a fundamental program for the students and industry partners it engages with to assist with future workforce development,” Kinley said. “It’s about working together and solving problems, and preparing our leaders for the future workforce.”

Kinley said ThinSchool’s name is derived from a term in the telecommunications industry, where his career began, that describes something that exists in the cloud, or on the internet.

The idea grew out of Kinley’s involvement with the Liberty Fellowship, an incubator founded in 2004 that seeks to move South Carolina forward by developing leaders in communities across the state.

As part of the leadership incubator, “fellows” are tasked with spearheading a project that has an impact on the state and reflects their personal passion.

For Kinley’s project, he decided in 2014 to do e-Merge @ the Garage in his hometown of Anderson, business startup experience.

Two other programs quickly grew out of e-Merge, including the startup incubator e-Spark and the LemonADE Stand, a workshop for middle and high school students to design and develop new business ideas.

Lopes, an energy expert at Clemson University, and a group of his colleagues took part in the e-Spark program in 2015.

After the program concluded, Kinley said he agreed to mentor Lopes, and the two men began discussing Lopes’ dream of changing education in South Carolina.

“My vision was improving education with technology,” said Lopes, who earned his undergraduate degree in architecture, a master’s degree in civil engineering, and a master of business administration degree from Clemson.

“When I began working with Craig, and even before that when I was really researching education to determine how to improve the system in South Carolina, one thing I found out is that we really need big improvement compared to the rest of the country,” Lopes added.

Lopes said he and Kinley began looking at ways to create an ecosystem that connects schools and engages various industry partners. And that’s where ThinSchool was born.

“What if we can let these kids know what is available to them, this is where the market is moving, and these are the options available to you,” he said. “We really want to produce the future leaders that can change the face of South Carolina.”

From 2015 to early 2016, Kinley said he and Lopes “spent a year on the road” investigating which future workforce skills will be needed and what the state’s technical colleges and universities were already doing to meet that need.

“After our year of discovery, we found we were on the right track,” Kinley said.

The concept was first piloted in the spring at Greenville’s NEXT High School.

A second round of pilots started in August at the Greenville Renewable Energy Education, or GREEN, Charter School, with another program set to launch soon at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville.

Lopes said he and Kinley plan to continue to build relationships with companies and schools, to add more courses, and launch a third pilot program that will also involve public schools.

The premise for ThinSchool is that manufacturing growth in South Carolina and the integration of new technologies in manufacturing processes has created competition and demand for skilled employees.

State and local officials, educators, schools, workforce development groups, companies, and other organizations have pondered various ways to stay ahead of the curve. Lopes and Kinley said ThinSchool is meant to complement, not to compete with those efforts.

“We’re not trying to save the world with what we’re doing,” Kinley said. “We’re just trying to improve it.”

Kinley said ThinSchool has partnered Sealevel Systems, and is working toward partnerships with companies such as Boeing and BMW Manufacturing Co. to determine what “soft skills” they are looking for in prospective employees.

The founders said courses could be designed for almost any industry, from drones and autonomous vehicles to aerospace and virtual reality software development.

Kinley said the founders envision a merit badge-style system for middle and junior high school students. For high school students, they hope to have a certificate system, where students might be able to earn college credits. The program lasts about 60 to 90 days, Kinley said.

The first pilot at NEXT High School involved 19 students that were divided into four teams that were each given “real world” challenges.

Those challenges included the growth of Greenville and the need for police staff; the state of South Carolina vocational work; Textile Crescent growth in Greenville; and repurposing government-owned facilities.

The program was broken down into five phases: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution.

“Through the entire process, what’s very interesting is we give [students] a real world problem,” Kinley said. “We guide them and coach them through that problem… What I really enjoy seeing is the different perspectives that they bring to the table.”