Walk into the Nerd Nook gift shop in Moorhead, and you won’t find anything specifically for boys or girls. There are puzzles, shark tooth jewelry, meteorites, fossils, brainiac games. Carrie Leopold, Nerd Nook founder, hand selects each item she sells to ensure they are gender neutral, and that each toy provides hands-on learning.
Her mission? Help boys and girls get innovative.
“I wanted to create a place where when parents come in, specifically parents that have daughters, they don’t think that everything in there is for boys,” she said. “I want them to know that their daughters can be building these things and building the brainiac toys. I’m very particular about what I choose to put in there because of that.”
Leopold opened up the shop last fall, starting first as an e-commerce website in October and then setting up a pop-up shop in the Moorhead Center Mall over Christmas.
Since then she’s gained a reputation for her unique selection of products. Many customers come to her shop by recommendation, looking for specific items (such as Squigs, an item which one woman has already ordered 5 of as Christmas presents for her grandkids.)
Inspire Innovation Lab: Helping kids not hate school
Leopold initially started the shop as a way to generate funds for her one-year-old nonprofit, the Inspire Innovation Lab, which provides professional development for teachers and innovative workshops for kids.
This, in partnership with the Nerd Nook toys, is all part of Leopold’s grand plan: to help kids not hate school.
“I was a kid that just wanted to sleep all day in school,” she said. “I just hated it.”
The fault, she says, lies in the “assembly line approach school system in America”; the teaching method of throwing facts at kids and relying on memorization. It’s the reason “I hate math” is such a common thing to hear, and why Leopold herself didn’t realize her own love for science until much later, she said.
“It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned that it could be something different, and it doesn’t have to be ‘do a worksheet and spit it back out’,” she said.
It inspired her to ask some big questions: How do we change this? What would school look like if there were no copy machine?
The pursuit of answers lead Leopold to quit her job at the North Dakota State College of Science last year, where she was the STEM Outreach Coordinator for 5 years, and start the Inspire Innovation Lab – now an established education center that brings STEM resources to teachers, students, and the local community.
“The idea is to transform a classroom from a 50 minute assembly line approach to a more entrepreneurial approach. Students are given a problem and they have to work through the process of coming up with a solution,” Leopold said. “The content becomes secondary. They still learn it, but they learn it by working through a process.”
Now, when Leopold walks into a classroom, she is actively changing the ‘school is boring’ mentality.
“They [students] view me as the fun one,” she said. “I’m not the teacher, but I always come in with my bag of stuff and we’re doing something. So for them it’s this really fun day.”
Inspire Innovation Lab is 100% volunteer based, with a team made up of retired teachers, retired engineers, and others that support Leopold’s mission to re-vamp education. The team hosts professional development sessions with teachers, and innovative workshops for kids, working often with homeschool organizations and local school groups. They also run summer camps all summer long.
Leopold hopes to move the Lab into a bigger space this Fall. She hopes that with the proceeds from Nerd Nook, she can continue to grow the organization.
Nerd Nook gets 5K for Sioux Falls Festival
Recently, Nerd Nook has generated enough attention that Leopold was asked to do a pop-up shop at an engineering festival in Sioux Falls this June – one that had over 4,000 people in attendance last year. In order to fund this pop-up shop, Leopold held a KivaZip campaign, which allows donors to give out small loans which Leopold can then pay back in a 2-year time frame.
On April 28, Leopold succeeded in reaching their $5,000 goal and is now making plans for the festival. Nerd Nook will be the only shop selling items at the event, and Leopold has high hopes that they will be able to sell their products, as well as generate interest in their e-commerce market.
In addition, Leopold now has 172 Kiva backers from as far as Germany, Norway and Japan. This Kiva network is now a community of online supporters that Leopold can draw from, all in support of her mission to re-vamp education. All proceeds from the festival and from sales at Nerd Nook are donated to education.
“The more money from the store, the more kids that we are able to help,” she said.
Learn more about Nerd Nook, here!
Learn more about the Inspire Innovation Lab, here!
Photos courtesy of Carrie Leopold.