(TNS) — The Columbus-based PAST Foundation has spent 15 years immersing local high-schoolers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to a degree and in ways that traditional schools cannot.

Now the nonprofit group has a bright, airy, innovative laboratory space in which to spread out, both literally and figuratively.

Last July, PAST — Partnering Anthropology with Science and Technology — bought a former cold-storage warehouse at 1003 Kinnear Road on the Northwest Side and renovated half of it. 

This month, it held a grand opening for community members.

First things first: PAST Innovation Lab is not a school.

"That's important," said Annalies Corbin, PAST's president and CEO. It has flexibility that traditional settings don't.

Metro Early College High School, the decade-old public STEM school across the street, sends many students for the day and PAST is staffed mostly by Metro teachers. But PAST also works with districts, including Columbus, Reynoldsburg and Dublin schools, to bring 11th- and 12th-graders in to take classes from Metro teachers in the labs.

Each of four learning labs has glass walls, which students can write on with dry-erase markers. Barn and garage doors also transform the space. The "Growth" lab focuses on food science, horticulture and food policy. "Bodies" is for students wanting to study in medical fields. "Energy" deals with generation, transmission and conservation of electricity. "Design" involves engineering, robotics, architecture and manufacturing.

The FabLab, in the unrenovated section, contains fabrication equipment, including a CNC ShopBot.

A central common area is flooded with natural light from two big skylights. The transparency and openness encourage collaboration among the students in the different learning labs, Corbin said.

"The lab spaces are authentic to what students would see and use in the world of business," said Metro High Principal Meka Pace in an email. "We are thrilled with the potential that lies within the new spaces."

Students complete internships with PAST's industry partners, such as Battelle and AEP. They work on real research-and-development teams and co-author research papers.

Corbin said the programs will be re-imagined yearly, responding to local industry needs. Another 15,000 square feet awaits renovation, if PAST can raise the necessary $1.8 million. It already has plans for three more themed labs.

One goal is for the lab to go "off the grid" electricity-wise, with work by the Energy students. The Growth students will work on water capture and reuse for the building.

On Wednesday afternoon, Metro High School's robotics team, the Metrobots, were in the lab getting ready for next week's world robotics championship in St. Louis. Madeleine Birdsell, 16, Cameron Aume, 17, and Mihai Petrescu, 15, worked on their robot inside a practice arena that the team had constructed in the FabLab.

In the Design lab, eight teens crowded around a table to brainstorm for a school pep rally for the Metrobots.

Swathi Vudatala, 15, said the new labs are "amazing." Before the expansion, "we could hear every time they would drill or cut or anything."

"It's a major step up from what we had before," said Gloria Chrisanty, 15.

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.