What happens when you take a passion for playing with building blocks and turn it into a full-time family business?

Ask Sarah and Jonathan Jacobs, creators and founders of The Robot Garage at 637 South Eton in Birmingham. The Jacobs are the parents of three daughters whose early interest in robotics and building with LEGO® inspired the concept for The Robot Garage, which opened its doors in June 2011.

The Robot Garage is one of a kind: a learning environment inviting robotic and LEGO enthusiasts of all ages to play, explore and discover. “The heart and soul of what we do is education,” says Sarah. “We didn’t set out to build a toy store as such, but we’ve grown the business to become a major player in the specialty store category for LEGO products. We now carry the entire LEGO® line.”

As a family, the Jacobs continue to build together. “Jonathan is a grown-up kid, himself,” says Sarah, “so he is continually on the hunt for new building toys that other retailers don’t ordinarily carry.” A connoisseur of vintage LEGO® sets, the Jacobs’ daughter, Jane, curates the store’s impressive collection of minifigures – “minifigs.”

The toys at the front of the store may be the initial attraction, but what entices visitors to come back time and again are the classes, the camp programs, the birthday parties and those bricks – a million colorful bricks set at tables where families can drop in and simply play. Bricks can be purchased by the pound, so anything built in the “drop-in room” can be purchased to take home.

“We’re all about hands-on learning, a luxury that schools just don’t have,” says Sarah. “We consult with many people in the educational community, particularly in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) programs at the intermediate school levels, so we have lots information and support for the kinds of things we’re doing here to accelerate hands-on learning.”

Summer camps, building a big following

With a full-time staff of seven and an auxiliary crew of college students from design and engineering schools around the country, The Robot Garage has more than its share of talent to staff the summer camp programs for groups in grades 1 – 8. “Running the camp is like a hosting a dinner party.” According to Sarah, “You need a really good mix of people.” This summer, five individual week-long camp sessions will be led by a team comprising students in art, industrial design, engineering, architecture and education, in short, a powerhouse and excellent combination of classroom management, technical skills and creativity. Camp sessions are based on the popular themes of Minecraft (gears, motors, robotics) Superheroes Save Detroit (landscapes, architecture, robotics) Legends and Modern Marvels (design, build, robotics) Robot Discover (robotics) and Alien Planet S9-5 (fantasy landscape and robotics.)

Most of the camps start off on a Monday morning with a blank installation table where 40 to 60 children work in groups at separate grade levels 1 through 3, 4 through 5 and middle school (6 through 8.)

In prep for the first camp session, Michelle Van Hecker has been at work for months drawing maps for the installations, creating prototypes, and building the platforms for elevations and electrical grids.

Self-described as a “LEGO geek” with a degree in engineering, Michelle has been an intrinsic part of The Robot Garage since its beginning. Building “LEGOscapes” is her passion. “We used to just wing it,” says Michelle, “but in three years we’ve learned more precisely what works and what doesn’t. We know, for example, that each installation needs at least three signature structures, and so for the Detroit theme we plan to build the RenCen, Eastern Market and the RiverWalk. We’ll probably also include the Comerica Building, because it is such a distinctive part of the Detroit skyline. After that, we’ll add the fantasy touches of our “Superhero” theme and create the “X-Men Institute.”

Imagining the future

If there’s a message in building Detroit out of LEGO bricks in the Robot Garage, it won’t be lost on the children. “My hope is that when children see what they can build together here, they will carry that interest forward,” says Michelle. “We all want to see Detroit rise. There’s so much that we’ve lost, so much that we didn’t save, it is beyond sad. To create change, you have to create awareness. When you actually take the time to study a design and build a building brick by brick, you see it through an entirely different lens. That ability – to envision and execute a plan – is an invaluable skill children need in building their future.”

To learn more about what playing with LEGOs on a summer afternoon in The Robot Garage can do for kids, visit The Robot Garage at www.therobotgarage.com or call 248-723-9100.