What started as a 4-H project about a decade ago has since become a family business providing opportunities for local children to be introduced to robotics, programming, animation and game design.
LabSpace Robotics is a business at Jefferson City's Capital Mall, but it offered a free class Saturday morning at the Missouri River Regional Library.
Brian Mueller and his 7-year-old daughter, Avery, were attendees to the "maker day," handcrafting fidget spinners out of materials like cereal box cardboard and pennies.
Fidget spinners are popular toys launched into the cultural lexicon earlier this year. The store-bought ones are essentially a central ball bearing with flat wings attached to it. Users flick a wing to give spin to the toy, like a fan or helicopter rotor.
Mueller said his daughter "loves building and creating things," whether with Legos or in Minecraft. "It's really just trying to encourage her to do things she loves," he said.
He added Avery has participated in a Lego robotics and engineering camp through LabSpace.
"Last week, we did the SumoBot Challenge," Rochelle Reeves said as she worked on fidget spinners with her daughter, Sela, 7.
Like their human Japanese wrestler namesakes, SumoBots try to push each other out of a circle.
Reeves' 10-year-old son, River, has done a coding program through LabSpace. She said "he's done a little bit at school," but LabSpace's activities allow him to have more freeform activity.
Other LabSpace activities have recently included making LED bookmarks, propeller cars and "stomp rockets" — paper and cardboard rockets launched with the air pressure pushed through PVC pipes by stomping on an empty soda liter bottle.
Annette Alberts runs LabSpace with her children — Zak, Max and Tessa.
Alberts and her children started learning about robotics in 4-H about 10 years ago.
"The kids acquired a lot of abilities and knowledge competing in robotics and decided that would be a good 4-H entrepreneurship project for them," she said. They started the business and ran it out of their home for a summer while they put together the money to rent a space; LabSpace opened two years ago.
"We just feel so thankful everyday that this is something we can do," she said of the low-cost and local opportunities they can provide children.
"We know how hard it was for us to get started," and how expensive it was to get engaged with robotics, she said. Her children had to travel for at least a couple hours in any direction to be able to compete in robotics competitions, with nothing being closer than St. Louis.
Registration for those competitions also can cost several hundred dollars, which is after first buying the materials to build the robots.
In contrast, LabSpace's robotics challenge in December will cost $5 per team, and the fee can be waived if there is a financial hardship. Alberts explained the mall's low rent, their family's in-house knowledge and equipment, and donated materials all help keep costs down.
LabSpace is particularly interested in donated materials like wire (insulated or not); wire strippers; pliers; half-inch PVC pipe sections 6 inches in length or more; half-inch PVC pipe connectors; unused paint stirrers; pipe cleaners; Jenga blocks; card stock; electrical tape; checkers pieces; CDs; and metal jar lids.
The business is also hosting a free "Great Cardboard Challenge" on Oct. 7. Participants will make an arcade machine out of cardboard and other recycled materials, either at school or at LabSpace the last two Saturdays in September.