Family turns inventive spirit into Okemos business

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In 2017, tinkrLAB, located in Meridian Mall, is a thriving center for young innovators, a store and “maker space” where future inventors can go to learn to sodder, code, take things apart, and other hands-on activities.

“tinkrLAB is all about inventors and inventing…and we really wanted to focus on kids,” co-founder Melissa Allen said. “Getting them hands-on and creative.”

When the family team of Allen, her father Joe Rabideau, and her husband Chris Allen moved into the space two years ago, it was a store selling dog products. Rabideau is an inventor who has released several products for dogs, including the Poochie Bowl, a dog bowl that helps long-eared dogs like basset hounds avoid ear infections from dragging their ears in the food or on the ground. He had to go through several iterative designs in order to get the bowls released to the public.

It was the family’s inventive spirit that helped them transform their narrowly focused store into the educational space it is today, changing it bit-by-bit until the store officially became tinkrLAB last October. For example, the store’s casual, wooden decor was originally designed by Rabideau for a dog-themed store, but it has proved adaptable to the store’s new focus.

“We started with the store, figured out what was working, what was not working, change it, tweak it, keep the good stuff, keeping the whole theme–the physical theme, but just making it so that it’s sort of like a fun place where you can experiment and stuff,” Allen said.

Inside the new store, it is that same spirit of “tinkering” to make an invention better that the family teaches aspiring inventors.

“I think one of the cool things we do with the kids here is, kids in general are kind of scared to fail,” Allen said. “They’re scared to do something wrong. And so, teaching them here, it’s not failing, it’s an experiment. We try it, and if it doesn’t work, we change it.”

Rabideau said the store is a replacement for the inventing experiences he had growing up, which he feels modern kids miss out on.

“When I was growing up, there was usually a dad in the neighborhood that had a workshop, was always making something in the garage, whether it was fixing a car or a mower, building something,” Rabideau said. “…Kids don’t have that now. And we’re finding that a lot of parents are kind of wishing that they did. But they’re not here to do that, so that’s kind of what this place is.”

The tinkrEDU program helps educate teachers about how to integrate “maker space” technology into their classroom, and helps them rent out equipment like 3D printers for classroom use. Chris Allen, who runs the tinkrEDU program, said one common question from teachers is how to incorporate new technology into existing course plans.

“During our training, we can bring in sample lesson plans we have already created,” Chris Allen said. “…We try to just make it relevant to what they’re doing…And then they’ve been really good at going, well, I have this circuits lesson plan coming up next month, so for that unit, I could add this to it.”

This weekend, Apr. 27-28, tinkrLAB is hosting Lansing Maker Fair at the Meridian Mall, which will feature hands-on activities for inventors of all ages.

“What Maker Fair is really all about is we can say, here’s these really cool things, I mean, 3D printing is really cool, robotics are really awesome, learning how to code is really popular right now, and here’s all of these local resources that are available,” Chris Allen said. “So, you see something you like at Maker Fair, come take a class at tinkrLAB, or learn how to use a 3D printer at tinkrLAB.”

The aim of tinkrLAB is to help a new generation of kids get excited about inventing. One boy who was particularly excited about a class where he learned to make signs went home to his parents, who own an ophthalmology practice, with a proposition.

“He said he’s going to make the signs and sell it to them,” Melissa Allen said. “He’s going to design up a sign, and they’re going to have to buy it from him, and he’ll install it for them…What’s cooler than a 13-year-old making money, right?”

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