Gensler Gets Schooled: Beyond 21st Century Design

Gensler Design Exchange Podcast
17 min readDec 1, 2022

School is in session!

The United States is on the precipice a shift in how, and where, education is delivered. K-12 schools in the U.S. are beginning to take inspiration from international education systems, reimagining the traditional design of a school and its curriculum.

Foust K-12 Gaming and Robotics Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a prime example of this shift. Once completed, it will serve as the first dedicated gaming and robotics school in the United States, presenting a monumental opportunity for other schools across the country to adopt career-focused education at an early grade level. But the challenge lies in getting the adult decision-makers on board with this adoption.

Rendering of the Foust Elementary Gaming & Robotics Magnet School in Greensboro, North Carolina

In this Education-themed episode of the Gensler Design Exchange Podcast, Gensler Charlotte Architect Vincent Spencer take over as host in conversation with the Chief Innovation Officer of Guilford County Schools, Dr. Eboni Camille Chillis.

Together, Vincent and Dr. Chillis examine the benefits of copying from international education systems, and why American education systems should adopt a “beyond 21st century” mindset when designing schools.

Pencils down.

Tune in to hear the full conversation. As always, thanks for listening!

Vincent Spencer, AIA, CPTED-CPD, LEED AP
Gensler Charlotte

Dr. Eboni Camille Chillis, PhD
Chief Innovation Officer
Guilford County Schools

Subscribe to Gensler Design Exchange on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.



This is the Gensler Design Exchange Podcast, creating dialogue between design experts, trade trendsetters, and industry thought leaders to discuss how together we shape the future of cities. I’m your host, Brandon Larcom.


When we think of how an American elementary school looks, we can picture the same, or at least a fairly similar concept. The hallways, the classrooms, even the water fountains that we envision tend to have some overlap from New York to California. COVID 19 forced a major an immediate shift in how school administrators and teachers performed their jobs and interacted with students. At home, learning required teachers and students to adopt and adapt to computer based learning.


Literally, overnight and the design of these school from home environments was far from top of mind. Now, just a couple of years later, the United States is on the precipice of another shift in how and where education is delivered. K-12 schools in the U.S. are beginning to take inspiration from international education systems, reimagining the traditional design of school and its curriculum. Foust Elementary in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a prime example of this shift.


The pre-K through fifth grade magnet school, which is designed by Gensler and currently under construction, will be the first dedicated gaming and robotics school in the country. This presents a monumental opportunity for other schools across the country to adopt career focused education at an early grade level. But it requires another sort of education educating the adult decision makers on how and why to adopt beyond 21st century design in the format and focus of our schools.


You’re listening to the Gensler Designed Exchange podcast, and in this back to school themed episode, we’ll be talking about the paradigm shift in education and the challenges behind adoption and adoption of new design in schools. I’m Brandon Larcom, director of Product Development at Gensler, and host of the Gensler Design Exchange Podcast. Today’s episode is being guest hosted by my colleague Vincent Spencer, an architect in the Gensler Charlotte office. Vincent, well, he’s taking it from here. Enjoy the show.


Greetings, everyone. Thank you again for tuning in to the Gensler Design Exchange podcast. I’m Vincent J. Spencer, architect and studio director in the Gensler Charlotte office. Today, I’m super excited to be joined by Dr. Eboni Camille Chillis, Chief Innovation Officer, Training Schools in North Carolina. Welcome, Dr. Chillis. It’s great to have you with me here today.


Thank you so much, Vincent. I’m glad to be here. I can’t wait to get started. I know you have plenty of questions you want to ask, and I have plenty of answers to give you.


Fantastic. First off, I’m curious to hear about your journey to becoming the chief innovation officer in the county schools. You’ve mentioned before that you started your career in entertainment, television and film. That must have provided a wildly different perspective when it comes to education. What from your previous career allowed you to enter the field and see the entire system of American education differently?


Well, that is a compacted question, but I’m excited to answer it. You know, I started my career, my first career in television and film as a producer. I loved it. I had the opportunity to work for some amazing celebrities and producers throughout the US. Most notably would be working for Tyler Perry, working the 96 Olympics, Super Bowls and award shows, and just having an opportunity to really think about how I bring imagery and sounds to life.


And so as I enjoyed that field, I also became very burnt out. And I was burnt out because I had spent so much time traveling and living out of a suitcase. And I wanted to do something really easy and I didn’t know what it was. And so I had an opportunity to travel around the world and two years later I said, okay, I’m coming back to the States. And I started to volunteer my time at a local high school. The principal with me and he said, I would love for you to come on full time. And I said, Well, I’m really not interested in doing that.


He said, Yeah, but the students really connect with you. You should consider it. And I ended up teaching at the high school level audio video production. I loved it, but my commitment was for years I wanted to find a freshman student, female, preferably, who was interested in mass media, radio, television and film. I would mentor that student and at the end of her four year matriculation, she was going to go to college and then pursue her master’s degree and do all of these wonderful things in the industry. Ironically, that happened. So at the end of four years I went back into industry.


I did it on my own terms. What I mean by my own terms is that I did consulting or I was a freelance producer. In that time I got a phone call and there was a superintendent who I didn’t know, but he heard about some work at the three years previously and he said, Are you interested in coming over to my school district? I want to start a career in technical education program. We talked a little bit. He convinced me, and the rest is history. I’ve spent ten years now working in several school districts in various states, implementing career and technical education programs that allow students to really master a skill or trade in high skill, high wage or in-demand occupations.


And I love it. What I learned in education with my first career compared to my second is disruption. Thinking about the ways that we disrupt traditional education, thinking about the spaces in which students learn, the opportunities for them to visualize themselves in a career, and the critical thinking that comes along with that. When I say critical thinking students leaving us knowing that they have options for success, the options might be immediate employment, entrepreneurship, enlistment or enrollment into a college or university, but us preparing students for that.


I think travel allowed me to really see a full scale perspective of not only what education look like, but also the entertainment industry. And so when I think about Guilford County Schools, which is a wonderful school district, we are on the cutting edge mark of really creating amazing. And I know we’ll talk about it a little bit more as we get into the podcast, but I just believe in an educational setting or environment. We need to operate as a Fortune 500 company.


We need to operate as a business. And I’m grateful for Guilford County, the leadership we have here, because I believe we’re starting to really rethink what education looks like, rethink what our facilities and buildings look like, and also bringing the community along with us as well.


That is tremendously inspiring. And I just absolutely love hearing you your. Day in and day out, particularly when we met each other at the April conference and hearing more about that background. It’s definitely makes me appreciative for having people such as yourself that pour into our children today. And so hearing that and where you presently are with Kent County schools, let’s hear a little bit more about the county schools and then tell us a little bit more about girls elementary school in particular, please.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up. Guilford County Schools by the numbers where the third largest school district in North Carolina, we have approximately 70,000 pre-K through 12th grade students with a graduation rate of 91.8%. With that great data, we also know that 66.3% of our students live below the poverty rate. So there is a lot of work to do in Guilford County to make sure that students are prepared for these high skill, high wage, in-demand occupations that parents and guardians feel like our students have choice, choice and the type of programming choice and the type of specialized things that are happening at the school, and that they’re also inspired to go into school buildings that reflect the community and industries around us.


Well stated.


Benson. I’m really eager to hear your perspective as an architect. What were some of the challenges getting by in, so to speak, with this particular project forces K-5 Gaming and Robotics School.


Thank you for that question, particularly with Guilford County Schools. I applaud the leadership and staff for pioneering on this innovative vision and goals for their 2020 bond. I’m very proud to say that I’m a graduate from within Guilford County School System, born and raised, and the general challenge is encouraging the school district to dream beyond the facilities they were educated in currently see and work in. That’s to say, not only aesthetically, but in its function experience and its contribution to the community and world.


A great relationship was established between different county schools and cancer because you also pushed and prompted us to give us that design that did more than just meet the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction and Requirements. You wanted a facility that not only provided in meet those standards, but created it could be beyond 21st century facility design. So the buy in, as you refer to, was for a nontraditional design that was already established.


And from a parental and community perspective, we see that they were equally supportive by the passing of that bond for these projects to come to fruition. Now it’s that paradigm shift that revolves around the educators who will use this facility in more ways that we can imagine or design for. And then also in the parents whose early age children will start their education using their latest devices as the beginning of their education.


So we have to educate the parents and inform them that what was perceived as a recreational thing. Or play former play is actually now a viable and active career path. So the challenge comes in multiple ways. Like I just mentioned, one aesthetically, when they approach this facility, it will not appear as what they grew up in in function. It will have several things occurring round about the school and within the school that they did not experience when they went to elementary level school.


And then its contribution, its involvement and invitation to the community to engage in everything that this school will be about, such as we have a windowed pickup area at the cafeteria where meals can be picked up from without having to go through the facility. And that’s a way we’re also being cognizant of our environment today, where safety and security is a top priority.


So while we are not turning our back on the community, we’re still offering a window for them to come get nourishment, get resources that they need. As we know that there is a community clinic that’s designed into this school that also offers opportunities to say this is a shared facility. This is not something that says for students only. We want that holistic involvement throughout parents and the community body.


Yeah, absolutely agree.


So with that, Dr. Childers, what do you see as some of the challenges of getting that buy in, so to speak, on a facility of this type?


So, you know, one of the challenges that we face in education is just rethinking what education looks like, where it happens, how it happens, how you recruit highly qualified teachers, how do you sustain them, how do you make facilities and spaces reflective of what you see all around the world? So when I say that not even just all around the world, let’s just go five miles up or ten miles away and go to a McDonald’s where there’s the automated kiosks where you can order your food or you go to the airport and there’s all of these automated services, or you go to a doctor’s office and you can fill out everything you need on a device right outside the office.


They call your name and you just go for your appointment. Those things we also want to see in a school building. So some of the challenges is bringing what’s happening in the outside world into the school building and those K five gaming and robotics school. It does that. Our students are going to automatically be prepared for careers that are either existing today, they’re emerging or they don’t yet exist. One of the challenges which I think we’ve overcome, and I know for certain we have, which was passing the third largest school bond at 1.7 billion ever to be passed, and Guilford County Schools, you know, I said this before, I shared it with others.


Like a wise man once said, statistics say the more birthdays you have, the longer you live. But that doesn’t stand true for American schools. So 42, 40, 16, 42 is the average age of a public school building in the US. 40 is the average age of rapid deterioration, and 16 years is the average functional ages of the schools. Guilford County schools have schools that are 40 years or older. So we have decades of deferred maintenance. We have decades of school looking like some of the schools that I went to in the early eighties and in the nineties.


This is the time that really disrupt what that looks like, where students can engage, explore and innovate anywhere within the school building that’s indoor outdoor learning, eat and learn wellness spaces, places where project based learning is happening everywhere, where there’s a true culture and climate, specifically for the gaming and robotics school that allows students to think deeply, to question, to challenge each other, to feel safe in what we traditionally call maker spaces, maybe thinking of those as your design build and test hubs where students have the opportunity to go in and create and then come out and to be able to articulate their findings of why something worked, why it didn’t, and why they have to go back into this design, build and test hub to come up with a better product, good or service.


So I think some of our challenges was really just disrupting mindsets of what education looks like, feels like what school buildings should look like, feel like what type of things we need to integrate into school buildings of the future, and then creating spaces for our students where they are absolutely without a shadow of a doubt, able to learn freely, express themselves, have collaborative time and dependent time, creative time and time to really get their words together.


Because the students at finals K-5 gave me a robotics part of their literacy. Part of their language is going to be coding and programming. So we even have to look at what is literacy differently as well. I mentioned North Carolina ranks number one for women and number one state for women in tech and second in the nation for information technology. So when we think about how quickly jobs are going to be available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we meet mathematicians, computational system analysts, bio medical engineers, that projected growth is from 21 to 23%, but that’s by 2023, and that’s just a year and a half from now.


So we’re preparing students for careers that are not yet existing, but having them matriculate through Guilford County Schools and graduating as a really competent, confident talent pipeline to go, like I said, and to employment enlistment enrollment or into an entrepreneurial venture. So, Vincent, I’m going to toss that question to you. How can architecture and design work really help to create that confident and competent talent pipeline?


Thank you for that. And the power of design is something that we believe in here at cancer, and we always start a project with probing questions. And so the great thing about this experience on the design of elementary school is that Guilford County Schools had already answers to those questions because you had to go through that process. If you will, to fundamentally establish what it was that you were trying to accomplish because you’re doing something that most school districts are not.


And so to create that competent, competent talent pipeline, part of it was exactly what you wanted to do is an inclusive facility, one that we spoke about it earlier, is that it does not turn its back on the community. It embraces it holistically. Then you provide a facility that embraces all types of learning styles. We’ve talked about things such as neurodiversity. That’s an academic term for when you’re designing to meet the needs for all sensory processing abilities.


Occupational therapists address that a lot with, as you mentioned earlier, Fortune 500 companies that our school district should be operating in thinking like them because they are the funnel that feeds into their workforce. And so those therapists advise these major companies to provide spaces that allow their creative thinkers to operate or produce at their highest levels. So you need spaces that allow small group collaboration, individual focus time or large group settings where all the extroverts can just get together and do everything that they want to do and talk as loud as they want and let all of their cylinders fire when they’re going through their creative process.


And so each of those opportunities allows that individual person to say, Hey, it’s okay if I process differently. I know when I came up through the school ranks, they use derogatory phrases like, Oh, you’re slow, which really had nothing to do with that person’s ability to be competent and understand the lesson they just learned and looked at it in a different way. And so now the facilities that we are creating these spaces allow them to feel comfortable with saying, Hey, I had the concept, I understand its application.


I just learned it in a different way than you do. So now it celebrates them. So that in turn creates that confidence that when they need to articulate or express themselves or just do their exercises for the day, they do them with a sense of joy. And you had mentioned that earlier, too, that these types of spaces bring joy to what they’re doing and where they want to go. And it’s a place where they want to be.


And so the competency part is definitely about how intense is the curriculum going to be. We talked about earlier that these early age children are going to experience a facility that’s creating some of the devices that we’ll be using as their parents. They’ll be popping off it, as we say, and taking these things apart and saying, well, I see its function now, but can it be later on? And it’s always tying back into that beyond 21st century phrase that we’re meeting the needs of now.


But we’re not going to compromise what we need to do for the future. And we’re complementing it and constantly looking towards it. So this learning environment has to be flexible. It still has purpose. So we’re always doing something that has an intent and an understanding, but it’s not confined to that for its entire lifetime because it was collectively designed by not just an architect or an engineer or city planner, educator, administrators and so on.


But it was designed with input from its children, its users, the parents, the alumni, the school resource officer, the maintenance staff, educational designers. We call it Future Ready. It’s collaborative learning spaces that really blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor landscape. And you have these high utilization of spaces throughout the school day and briefly after school hours so that these students can find a safe place.


They can find a place where they can either focus in or completely explode with a brainstorm of ideas throughout the entire facility and not have to feel like they’re restricted in any way possible. Yeah. Another thing that I think about is just that we have to design. Equitable spaces and opportunities as African-American fathers. Systemic stigma as I was around it, influenced by it, was not encouraging to be an architect, and there are very few male and female combined was scarcely found in books or even by word of mouth.


They were barely even acknowledge or celebrated to see a pipeline of conflict again, competent talent to become an architect. So now you know this strategic exposure of what we’re giving to these students for content creation, coding, things like operational mechanics that you see in robots languages, encoding like you mentioned earlier, content creation, all of these are career opportunities that you said are either embarking on or haven’t been created yet.


But we’re given this sense of high ambitions and character development and work ethic at the pre-K through five level. Earlier, we spoke about partnerships and we want to use evidence based practices that tell us, Hey, you can become what you see. It makes me think about generational success behind groundbreaking pioneers. It does happen, and that happens because that son or daughter or cousin or somewhere down the line look up to some older individual and saw that that’s something I can do.


And so that created a confidence in them, or at least a sense of purpose that they could say, I can build upon this. And when they see this at such an early age that I can take apart a cell phone and put it back together, who knows what Apple or Android are, say above that. But if we want them to be that mindful and that critically thinking and understanding of concepts and applications as opposed to just direct regurgitation of information, that is what’s really going to spearhead a next generation of thought leaders.


Yeah, I agree. I imagine in elementary school during career days, especially at this finals, K-5 gaming robotics school, that we won’t just hear students saying that, you know, I want to be a teacher, a superintendent, a lawyer, a doctor, a police officer. But they’re going to be saying, I want to be an avatar designer, a metaverse planner, a big data host, special food printer, person, Efficiency optimizer, or super baby designer invented. I do not know what type of criteria or credentials or specializations you need for any of these fields, but I know that they are emerging and some of them already exist.


As you were talking about representation and pursuing degrees or a career as a architect, I hear you loud and clear, and I will say that there is even a emerging future job where it is called I think it’s called a super smart architect. You, of course, may have already heard about it, but it’s literally creating everything from a smart technology sense in the architectural design as well.


This has been the Gensler Design Exchange podcast. Thanks for listening and we hope you tune in next time.


You’ve been listening to the Gensler Design Exchange podcast. Anywhere you listen to podcasts and if you enjoyed it, don’t forget to leave us a five star review. Stay tuned for more conversations on the power of design right here and connect with us via email at Gensler podcast at Gensler dot com or on Instagram. Until next time, I’m Brandon Larcom for the Gensler Design Exchange.



Gensler Design Exchange Podcast

The Gensler Design Exchange creates a dialogue between design experts, creative trendsetters & thought leaders to discuss how we can shape the future of cities.