101bots had the pleasure of chatting with the owner of Brooklyn Robot Foundry owner, Jenny Young. Currently, they have a location in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus but have just opened a second center in TriBeCA last Saturday. Young tells us about the Foundry’s expansion into Manhattan, how they inspire kids to learn engineering and how she’s addressing the lack of women in tech.
Could you briefly explain what the Robot Foundry is and what you do?
I grew up in the suburbs in Cleveland, Ohio and I grew up in the garage with my father. So my father is an engineer and I went to school to be an engineer and we were always in the garage building things with him or in the house with my mom doing arts and crafts projects. And because of having those hands on building experiences as a child, it definitely shaped the way I viewed the world and the way I solved problems. So I went to school to be an engineer and after I graduated, I did some engineering I did some business, and I slowly moved away from building and making. And one day I woke up–and that point I was living in New York City–I currently live with my husband and our daughter and our cats in very small quarters and I realized that I really missed making. And what it made me realize is–my daughter at 10 months old, she can’t really build anything yet–it made me realize it would be really hard for her to build and create things without having the space. In New York City, space is such a premium. So basically what Robot Foundry is, is a space for city kids to come and build together and create. It’s kind of like a garage for city kids. What we do here is we teach robot classes for kids starting at 4 and it goes up to about 13 or 14. What happens is the kids come in either–there’s a couple different programs they can come in for. They can come in for a one time class on the weekends that would last for about 1 and half hours to 3 hours or they could come for after school programs where they come one day a week for 11 weeks. We also do birthday parties and where we make most of our money is in the summer where we do week long summer sessions. So the kids come in from 9 to 3–there’s an extended day option–but basically they’re coming for an entire week and they’re going to be building and making things with us. What types of projects they’re working on is… We like to teach the kids the engineering behind how everyday items move and work. For instance, what we might do on the first day of the summer session is that we’ll do a quick introduction of circuits so it would be “Here’s a battery, here are wires, here’s a LED,”. We’ll teach the kids how conductivity works, how electricity works and then they’ll be making this really simple circuit that lights up. Then we’re very open-ended and very free form. We have all types of craft materials we have all types of recycled materials and we say “OK here’s an example: we build a robot with our light and he has a light on his head. But you really can build whatever you want with it. Now you know how to do the circuit with the light. If you want to make a puppy dog with a light on its head, if you want to make a princess with a magical light up wand that’s fine, if you want to make a train, great. If you want to make a ninja, great.” So it’s very free form and very open-ended where kids can understand that they can enjoy and do engineering and have it actually be applicable to whatever they enjoy and do.
And you also have adult classes, is that correct?
We don’t do a lot of adult classes, we mostly focus on kid stuff. We do have adult birthday parties sometimes. I want to further expand that offering but we’re not just quite there yet. Every once in awhile we’ll have an adult class where it’s a BYOB and we’ll teach you how to solder and make a really simple robot with you. We’ve also partnered with a dating site called “HowAboutWe.” And there’s a portion of their site that’s for couples. They send 30 couples to us and we’ll have a night of robot building which is really fun.
There’s a lack of STEM education in the American education system and that’s something that your center teaches. Do you have an idea of what some solutions might be to this education problem?
One of the things that see you a lot is standardized tests and a lot of predicted assessments and the American system is based a lot on a whole bunch of tests and the kids are constantly being tested. I think that’s actually part of the problem because the teachers then are forced and graded against how their children do on the tests. In my opinion, for children to learn, because they’re being taught to test rather than being taught to enjoy learning and how the world works and becoming engaged in the subject matter. It’s rather along the lines of whether you cover standard 3,4 and 5. And so what we do here is that we do teach the kids science and math and they’re learning a lot. But because we’re not a school we don’t have to the tests and it’s a lot more fun and it’s a lot more free form than something you might have in school. We do do teacher trainings and I have a woman who starting in April who’s going to really expand the teacher training offerings, but part of my goal which is something that would be amazing if we had in 10 years would be to have teachers in the New York City public schools teaching the Robot Foundry projects and then we do the alignment in the core curriculum. So it makes it fun and easy for teachers to do something a little more creative and still be able to teach the kids the information that they need. Here the kids are super engaged and we have parents come up to us and say that their kids don’t so well in the traditional environment and maybe they’re having problems with kids at school. We’ve had kids come here and build all sorts of incredible projects and because of that they’re actually doing better in the classroom which is great. If we could actually train teachers and have them do this in a classroom, it would be a very powerful thing.
So you’re opening a new location in Manhattan but you’re currently based in Brooklyn? Has this new location opened already?
Yep, it opened on Saturday. It’s opened and it’s just a soft opening. We have a small toy store in the front of both stores where we sells toys I think are high quality and teach some sort of educational concept. On March 22nd, we’re going to have a big opening event at the TriBeCA location. We’re going to have little activities and and things for them to do. And we’ve actually already booked birthday parties there which is kind of amazing that people even know about it and then we’ll be doing weekend classes. And our summer session is already posted on our website for the downtown location. It will be fully up and running in about a week or 2.
What is so great about robots? Why do people like them so much?
At least the robots we make, make everybody laugh. Or they at least make you smile. The idea that you can create something that’s smaller than a human but has some sort of human characteristic or does something that a human would normally do I think is quite adorable and it makes people really happy. It’s funny–it’s all ages of people want to build a robot. We’ll have grandparents, we’ll have adults, kids all walk in and they’ll be like “Wow! Robots!” and I think it’s just an idea that you can make something and have something that does–you know our robots aren’t super complicated–but does a task that is usually associated with a human. I think that’s kind of cool.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you think I should know?
One of the problems that I see is that there aren’t very many women. I went to school for mechanical engineering. I went to Purdue in Indiana and I think there were 20 or 30% girls in engineering. And every time I was in class I would count and it would never be–I think 11% was the highest it ever was. So there’s definitely an issue where women decide that engineering is not the right fit for them. We’ve seen with the classes that we’ve had, around the age of 5 or 6, our percentage of girls versus boys really starts to weigh down. And so it bothers me because obviously there’s no reason why females shouldn’t really enjoy and love engineering. So we’re starting a women in technology series and we’re hopefully going to announce it on Saturday… I have a bunch of women who have tech jobs–they’re going to come in and give lectures. It’s going to be a once a month thing and basically it’s to introduce people all the types of jobs you could do if you get a degree in this field. And also, look women can and do these jobs. So the idea is that people bring their kids and just being able to see that this is accessible to all types of people.
Thanks for your time, Jenny! Check out the Brooklyn Robot Foundry’s website for more information on classes and events.