The Robot Garage offers students a place to use their hands and brain in a fun way.
By Maxwell White
Photography by Brett Mountain and Hayden Stinebaugh (featured image)
Every year, The Robot Garage helps thousands of kids in Metro Detroit learn about engineering and robotics, but before it was a thought in the founders’ minds, Sarah and Jonathan Jacobs were focused on finding opportunities for their oldest daughter, Jane.
In elementary school, Jane loved to play with Legos and had a growing interest in STEM (science, engineering, technology and math). When she got to middle school, Jane joined the robotics team, making it all the way to regional finals.
“It was these kids so engaged by what they were doing — cheering and screaming — it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Sarah says. “I said to Jonathan, ‘No one is doing this. Where do these kids go when the season ends?’ ”
That was the moment The Robot Garage was born. Franklin residents Sarah, 54, and Jonathan, 53, spent a year writing a business plan, and it turned into a family affair, involving all three daughters. At the time, Sarah was working for the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center and Jonathan worked as an engineer.
“We put clotheslines up in our kitchen, and it became our war room,” Sarah says. “We had ideas from our kids, parents, friends, and they’d come into the war room and we’d put it on the wall.”
Soon the mission began to take shape. The Robot Garage would be a space where kids could get hands-on engineering experiences that were engaging and memorable. Younger kids can build anything from Lego robotic barking dogs to windshield wipers. Older kids go more in-depth building their own robots, usually vehicles, with Mindstorms and Tetrix robotics systems.
The business started in Birmingham with birthday parties for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade in June 2011. A few years later in 2014, it was one of 12 small businesses in the country to earn the Chase Mission Main Street Grant. That meant $250,000 and a trip to Google’s headquarters.
“That was amazing because we were talking about scalability and getting everything perfect until we opened our second store (in Rochester Hills),” Sarah says. “All of the sudden, we had this money to open a second store.”
Now, The Robot Garage offers robotics classes, camps, memberships and another location in Grosse Pointe Park. Programs are also available for students through 12th grade, and families can sign up for a $99 annual membership that includes free drop-ins and class discounts.
Classes are taught by a variety of people, including a retired General Motors engineer who headed FIRST Lego League in Michigan for years, FIRST Robotics students and mentors, and high school and college students.
The business also helps communities that may not have access to robotics programs. The Robot Garage has worked with Quicken Loans the past two years on its Day of Innovation to get Detroit students involved with robotics. With sessions in the fall and another in spring, the 1,600 sixth-graders built a massive Lego mosaic of the city of Detroit, standing nearly 5 feet tall with around 82,000 pieces.
Thanks to a Ford Motor Co. grant last year, The Robot Garage also offered a 2-hour Sumo Robotics workshop for Detroit seventh-graders.
“(They) spend about an hour building them, then they battle,” Jonathan says. “The concept is to get the middle schoolers exposed to science and something cool and fun before they get to high school.”
Jennifer Rosenberg learned about The Robot Garage when her son, Henry, went to a birthday party.
Henry, a third-grader, has taken classes at The Robot Garage for three years, and Rosenberg says the classes have helped him grow as a person.
“It’s a very comfortable environment. They show a genuine interest in him — that in itself has given him the confidence to be more of a leader, to speak up because it’s his passion,” Rosenberg says.
She adds that the kids can work at their own pace.
“If there was a project you didn’t finish one week, you could finish it the following week,” she says. “He’s not competing against others as much as he’s learning to compete within himself to make himself better.”
Rosenberg also touts the staff, noting that employees have even dropped off parts at her house for Henry.
“They’re just very good people. They’re very intelligent, but they can relate to children,” Rosenberg says. “To find that combination is really special.”
Sarah and Jonathan dreamed about what The Robot Garage could be when it started. Now, Sarah dreams that 20 years from now, a Robot Garage student invents something that changes the world.
“When someone asks them, ‘How did you get into this?’ They say, ‘I took a camp at The Robot Garage once, and it just opened up the world to all of these things.’ ”
“I said to Sarah that ‘I want this to be that day in science class where you got to explode the thing,’ ” Jonathan adds. “I don’t ever want kids to feel like we’re droning on trying to explain the science and math.”
The Jacobses are now looking to the future, which Jonathan jokes hopefully involves a little more sleep. The Robot Garage is also expanding into the gaming realm, teaching kids how to write code for video games.
While the couple would like to open more stores, they also believe that virtual growth might be better for the future.
“We want to make it accessible to as many kids as possible,” Sarah says, “and I think we may be able to do that virtually more than through brick and mortar.”
637 S. Eton St., Birmingham
172 N. Adams Road, Rochester Hills
Grosse Pointe Park
15201 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Park
Visit therobotgarage.com for schedules and more information.