A Garage of Their Own: Brooklyn Robot Foundry’s Jenny Young Gives NYC Kids Space to Build

By Lela Nargi

“Because I’m a girl engineer, everyone always thinks I started this business with my husband,” says Jenny Young with a laugh that only vaguely disguises her frustration. An airplane pilot, a graduate of Purdue University’s mechanical engineering program and now, owner of Brooklyn Robot Foundry—one of the borough’s hippest destinations for the under-12 set—Young is, alas, no stranger to cross-eyed looks from a certain stripe of “traditionalist” who thinks that science is better performed by boys and men. And although she owns that women engineers are a definitely minority in the US, “For me, it’s not an issue,” she says.

This may be because of the strong and encouraging start she received from her parents growing up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “They were both very hands-on,” Young says. “My dad built a car from scratch, and the lawnmower, and the rototiller, so I was always with him in the garage, building stuff. And my mom makes all kinds of things with her hands.” For a while, Young thought she’d pursue a career as a pilot, then decided to focus on aerospace engineering instead. She moved to New York and began working for a software engineering company called Wireless Generation—where she met both her husband, Ken, a computer scientist, and her original business partner (now out of the picture), David VanEsselstyn, who works in education. And pretty quickly, she began to long for the various joys and liberties that come along with fabricating things on your own.

“It was hard not to have a workspace with all my tools in it,” Young says. “I needed that continuation of being able to build.” She joined an early, shared maker space in artsy East Williamsburg. And then, one fateful afternoon in 2012, she reserved time at a sewing studio further south, in the now gentrifying neighborhood of Gowanus, to stitch up little books for her pending wedding to Ken. She befriended the owner, who asked if she’d be interested in subletting the space. And Brooklyn Robot Foundry in its first incarnation—there’s now a second location in Manhattan’s Tribeca—was hatched.

Young’s own experiences—as an engineer, as a maker of things, and now, as a mom to 2-1/2 year old daughter, Adalina (son, Ero, is on the way)—heavily influenced the weekend, afterschool, and summer curricula she’s developed for toddlers through 7th graders (and sometimes adults). “The way I was raised in the Midwest, we were always taking things apart and asking questions,” she says. “We didn’t watch much television; we were doing things with our hands. It makes your brain work in a different way, and it makes you wonder, how does that work? If you don’t get that experience as a kid, you don’t think about those questions, and that’s a shame.”

A few years back, Young asked an early group of urban kid robot builders, “How does a stoplight work?” Their answers were funny—and slightly unsettling (one example: “There’s a mini Mickey Mouse in there!”). But under her and her assistants’ tutelage, says Young, “By the end of a week, they totally get how things work.” And they’ve learned simple construction and coding skills to boot.

On a recent summer morning, the Gowanus output of the Foundry was humming with tweens collaborating on a host of robot projects. “It’s a nice hum, though, isn’t it?” Young asked. “It’s the hum of people working who are doing things they enjoy.” The robots were being assembled by their excitable but focused overlords out of simple and often up-cycled materials like aluminum foil and cardboard boxes, and were attached by wires to batteries, servos, circuit boards, and laptops, and in some instances, such bells and whistles as LED’s, sound and motion sensors.  They included at least two candy dispensers, a mousetrap, and a maze for racing homemade hexbugs and they were being (mostly) patiently programmed using a language called CREATE Lab Visual Programmer, created at Carnegie Mellon.

Surveying the scene, Young smiled—and continued to smile, ever wider, as she visited worktables and asked and answered questions. “Kids are so much more creative than we are,” she said. “[Adult] people ask me, Why don’t you do Lego robotics? But that’s expensive, and I want kids to know, this is a motor that costs a couple of bucks at RadioShack, this is a gearbox. And you can make anything you want out of whatever you’ve got around, because you have the confidence and the ability.”

The assembled group included some girls—not the almost 50 percent Young can see among younger classes of participants, but somewhere closer to 25 percent. Like female scientists before and concurrent to her, Young is baffled by how, not to interest girls in STEM topics in the first place, but to keep them interested and engaged as they get older. “When it comes to the gender breakdown, the thing I find most disturbing is that the numbers tank around second grade. We’re hoping that as we’re here longer, we can get them excited and keep them longer. I really think you have to catch them young and show them how cool these things can be. That’s how you get them to come with you. I hope.”

Young’s also been doing concerted outreach toward both girls and their parents, with a, women in tech lecture series, meant to act as a sort of sampling of the diverse and fascinating panoply of STEM-related jobs that real women have; and a girls club where parents and daughters can come in and build together. Nevertheless, “We don’t do specific projects for girls,” she says. And perhaps steering clear of this sort of restrictive thinking will help Young yield significant changes in attitudes about girls in math and sciences, as well as how they should act and behave. “I’m an engineer, and I was also a princess for every single Halloween growing up,” she says. “We give them the base of understanding about how to turn components into, say, a crane. Then, if they want to make it look like a princess, we don’t care! We just want them to understand that it’s cool to build.”

Photographs by Roy Beeson

Julie G. is the Pied Piper of Tiny Urban Scientists

Julie G.

By Lela Nargi

For the past several years, kids have been STEMed up the wazoo as the national conversation about education—and more particularly, what’s wrong with it—has centered on a perceived lacking in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Also lacking in the face of much high-minded assessment? A sense of fun, and of the integral, integrated way that science flows through our lives and the lives of our children, (yes, even city children), if we just know how to pay attention.

Enter Julie G. and her uncluttered outpost hunkered on a bright corner of Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace, Tiny Scientist. Here, for the last two years, the former metal singer turned elementary science teacher shows area kids what’s fun and oh-so-relevant about science in the city. She’s uniquely suited to the task: “I was never interested in science in school,” she confesses. “We had a third grade teacher, ‘Mean’ MacLean, who was actually mean and didn’t teach us anything.” As a result, she initially shirked college until, enrolled in her 20s in an adult learners program at City College, she found herself taking a basic science course. “The teacher showed us slides of cells multiplying and I was immediately hooked,” says Julie, who went on to get masters in biology, math, and science elementary education at Hunter College.

After 10 years teaching science to public school kids, and having just become a first-time mom herself, to daughter, Quinn (Julie’s husband, Andrew Schneider, is a sound engineer for Blue Man Group), she took the plunge and opened her own little science oasis. We caught up with her to get her take on what’s so fun, and what’s so relevant for city kids, about all kinds of science.

Rocks: In the Tiny Scientist class “Rock Cycle Riot,” geared towards kids aged 5 to 10, children put on their paleontology hats to study the Jurassic period and recreate an excavation. Says Julie, “We use lots of visual references and discuss how all rocks started as one type of rock, and changed into other types of rocks over millions of years with pressure. In a class like this, there’s also measuring, sequential thinking, history, sensory development and literacy, because we read books about it.”

But what do prehistoric times have to do with the science we see in the world around us today? “One of the big things we learn is that things change over time,” says Julie. “That’s a big skill for kids, to be able to observe things that happen in some sort of sequence. One of the ways that kind of thinking is applicable to any environment, but particularly the city, where people think we don’t see any nature, is with leaves changing with the seasons. But there are so many ways it works for kids. Kids living in the ‘concrete jungle’ see buildings being built up from big holes in the ground.  And they can experience how forceful and important nature is by taking a closer look at the ground right beneath their feet. Very few living things can break rocks, but trees can! And especially here in Brooklyn, we see the sidewalks breaking from the tree roots growing out of them.”

Candy: Working with treats isn’t just about satisfying your sweet tooth. In fact, for kids as young as 4 who are enrolled in Tiny Scientist’s “Candy Chemistry” class, there’s almost no sugar-eating at all. Even though Julie does show kids how to add agar agar to sugar syrup to make gummy candy, “Actually,” she says, “it’s just a fun anchor for studying real science concepts, like pressure, which we use to smash things like marshmallows.”

Air pressure, she points out, is literally everywhere, even though we can’t see it. Standing on a subway platform, almost every kid in New York has felt air pushing through the tunnel as the train has neared the station. But even a task as mundane as blowing bubbles on the sidewalk is loaded with useful information for kids who are learning to observe closely.  “Bubbles can tell you about the wind, how fast it’s moving, the direction it’s coming from, how air moves around corners,” says Julie. “Learning about this is training kids to think about what doesn’t seem to be there but is actually all around you.”

Making: Julie’s class “Maker Magic” is a kind of free-for-all of engineering and tech concepts, where kids in grades 2 through 5 make things like lava lamps and put together working circuits. These are building blocks for all manner of things that shelter us, and keep us comfortable as we live and work and move from place to place. “We just looked at propellers and talked about sustainable energy versus fossil fuels. Then we built solar panel circuits attached to small motors,” says Julie.

How does all this pertain to city living? “There’s a block right here in Windsor Terrace that’s becoming a heavy topic of conversation, because there are locally based organizations trying to get homeowners to put solar panels on the roofs of their houses. A lot of schools are experimenting with using them to power machines, and the panels are becoming more and more a part of city life. Even the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses them, and some of the bridges have solar lights.” And possibly the best part of all for parents hoping to help their kids become keen observers, even after their class at Tiny Scientist has draw to a close: “Trips to see these things cost nothing!” says Julie.

Photographs by Roy Beeson.

14 Great Learning Apps for Kids & Families

Screentime for kids doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the parenting media. But there’s no denying that we live in an increasingly digital world in which we grownups use technology to our benefit, for everything from navigating local kid-friendly restaurants to figuring out where to gas up the car when the “empty” light flashes on. Can’t children enjoy similar benefits?

“The basic misconception about screen time stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being performed,” says Björn Jeffery, co-founder of the kids game development studio Toca Boca. “But tablets can be used for language learning, playing games, watching educational videos, or video chatting with family. We like to think of a tablet as a tool with endless possibilities to tap into different emotions, skills, and parts of the brain.”

With this in mind, we’ve rounded up 14 truly terrific educational, gender-neutral apps for kids of all ages, to be used alone or with their parents. Because, as Jeffrey maintains, “All kids should have the opportunity to learn about subjects they are interested in and play with toys they find fun.”

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Even on a day when you can’t make it to a zoo near you to get up close and personal with all the animals, children can visit them virtually with this app’s giant panda cam, as well as five others that zone in on gorillas, tigers, flamingos, lions, and golden lion tamarins. The app also includes an animal index that lets kids test their species knowledge, and a whole host of information about animals noises and ecosystems (iPad, iPhone & Android, ages 2+, $2).

Avokiddo Emotions. Kids will come down with a serious case of the giggles when they’re introduced to a zany zebra, shy sheep, jolly giraffe, and modest moose. These characters are meant to introduce children to the vast and confusing landscape of their own emotions as they dress up, feed, and interact with little essential pieces of themselves (iPhone, iPad, & Android, ages 2-5, $3).

Sesame Street Family Play. This is an app that’s actually an anti-app, offering parents stuck with their kids in the waiting room or on the train with over 150 fun games they can play together on the spot. Because sometimes, you’ve all had more than enough screentime for the day (iPhone & iPad ages 2-5, $1).

National Geographic’s Look & Learn: Animals Vol. 1. This bundle of three apps—Animal Bounce, Animal Match, and Animal Words—encourages awareness of the natural world through photographs, animal sounds, and game play. Really, this is a theme that never seems to get old among the under-5 set (iPad & iPhone, ages 3-5, $3).


Gro Garden. Kids become virtual gardeners as they plant and care for crops, feed hungry animals, and make compost from food scraps. It’s the next best thing to getting your kids to plant their own gardens on your windowsill—and infinitely more tidy (iPhone, iPad, Android, ages 5+, $3).


NASA’s Rocket Science 101. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to launch a NASA rocket! Select a mission and build your own rocket that you can then send into orbit. Kids will learn the details of particular NASA missions as well as all about the various components of the launch vehicles and what it takes to get one of these amazing pieces of machinery to break free of gravity (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 5-10, free).



It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Join this fierce predator as she shatters the stillness of the prehistoric forest! Kids can explore pictures, learn new vocabulary, and personalize the app’s story with their own narration. Because seriously, have you ever met a toddler who wasn’t into dinosaurs? (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-5 $3)


Thinkrolls. This is a logic puzzler for elementary kids that’s meant to enhance problem solving, memory, and spatial cognition skills. Every time children sit down to use it, they learn a little something about force, acceleration, buoyancy, heat, elasticity, and gravity while helping 22 Thinkrolls characters navigate through a maze (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-8, $3).

Toca Lab. This colorful STEM-savvy app lets children discover all 118 of the elements from the periodic table (which is more than their parents are likely to know, unless they’re chemists) by experimenting with the various tools provided. Bonus: they won’t be able to blow anything up! (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 6-8, $3)

The Robot Factory: Build Robots. Children can create any robot they can imagine from 100 parts including exoskeletons, telescopic arms, and spider legs. They can test them by running them through a fantastical world full of obstacles. Then, they can take them out to play (virtually, of course) with whenever they choose (iPhone & iPad, ages 6-8, $4).


Sky Map. This clever app turns your device answers (almost) all your questions about the night sky. Just point your smartphone upwards and Sky Map will tell you exactly what stars, planets, moon phases, constellations, messier objects and meteor showers you see (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).

Leafsnap. This electronic field guides uses visual recognition software to help kids (and their parents) identify tree species found in the Northeastern US and Canada from photographs you take of their leaves. Great for budding (har) botanists and arborists, and a super way for kids and parents to learn together (iPad & iPhone, all ages, free).

Audubon Birds Pro. This mobile field guide will help you and your kids identify 821 bird species, let you explore an advanced gallery for easy comparison, and contribute to NatureShare, a social community of birders who observe, identify, and share their observations online. Once you get started, you’ll be amazed at how many birds that aren’t pigeons you’ll find hanging out at the local park (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, $10).


Project Noah. This super tool lets you explore and document insects, animals, plants and trees on a platform designed to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. Just upload your own photo of a species and within hours, other users will weigh in with their expertise to identify it. A great way to learn about your environment as a family, and to discover that there are many other like-minded, nature-loving urbanites among you (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).