The Robot Garage Founders, Sarah and Jonathan Jacobs, a Mom-Dad Team
LEGOs and robots bring this family together – including their three STEM-minded daughters – at their Oakland County hub for science fun and education
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Tucked in a former Birmingham industrial park sits a place unlike any other.
Inside a converted warehouse with clear garage doors, kids of all ages pore over thousands of LEGO pieces. They design and build to their hearts' content, free to explore their inner architect, engineer or just build the latest Star Wars LEGO playset.
Sarah and Jonathan Jacobs
This haven for all things LEGO and robotics is The Robot Garage, opened in June 2011 by husband and wife Jonathan and Sarah Jacobs. After years of working for others, the Jacobses wanted to control their own destiny and do something they believe in.
"I realized there was no brick-and-mortar place where kids could come build or engineer robots," Sarah says, "and for people who really build seriously with LEGO."
The impetus for The Robot Garage, located on Eton Street in Birmingham's Rail District, goes back to Jonathan's love for the colorful blocks. He says he always liked LEGOs as a kid, but they were too expensive. He settled for Fischertechnik, a German brand of construction toy. From then on, he was hooked. As an adult, Sarah says her husband would stay up until 3 a.m. to make robots.
(Even while sitting for an interview for this article, Jonathan was busy constructing – from scratch – a blue-and-gray LEGO brick house. He meticulously and effortlessly finished the building, all the while answering questions and talking about the business.)
"He's like the kid in the movie Big," Sarah, 48, jokes. "He just cares a lot about having fun." Which is why Jonathan, also 48, says he wants The Robot Garage to feel like the fun day in science class, when kids get to build stuff or blow it up before they have to do six weeks of a lab report. His goal, he says, is "not that a kid comes to one class and they're an engineer," but that they have fun and, perhaps, learn math and science along the way. Creating a place for the community to come together, not through a virtual social network, was very important, too, he says.
Family is a major part of The Robot Garage. Daughters Jane, 14, Kate, 12, and Thea, 10, all help. In the business' upstairs, each child has her own office. The girls have roles and responsibilities, whether participating in workshop classes, helping other kids build creations or handling merchandise.
"We used to have friends come over and, to them, we were the LEGO kids," Jane says. "We're the kids who have giant buckets of LEGOs in our basement. We would just go sit and hang out there for hours. Most people don't have a giant pile of LEGOs. I think we took it for granted. We forgot how much fun it is to sit in a gigantic pile of LEGOs and just let your imagination wander."
Jane also loves robotics competitions, which she's done since middle school. Kate, who likes robotics too, is more interested in the design and architecture. Thea isn't as into either, but she's very competent – and quick to help anyone at The Robot Garage.
Mom is the first to admit she's less engineer-minded than the rest of the clan. Instead, Sarah's more the artistic type. "I'm like the art mom in the engineering family."
But that's what makes The Robot Garage – and the family – work. Everyone has a skill, and they're all willing to make it happen.
"The Robot Garage has been a family journey since its inception. The opportunity to take an idea through development and make it a reality – that's a gift for anyone," Sarah says. "To do it together with your family is like no other experience."
The garage holds classes and camps on robotics, architecture and engineering – all teaching with LEGO and other products. For example, seven weeks of camps start on a 10-by-10-foot table. In one, participants have five days to build an enormous LEGO city.