Gentex team members are always finding innovative ways to use and share their knowledge—and not just at work. We have several employees helping local students gain hands-on experience in science and technology in a fun way through mentoring robotics groups at local schools.
As mentors for FIRST robotics teams at high schools in Zeeland and St. Joseph, Gentex Senior IT Administrator Matt Michielsen and Software Engineer Randy Fife meet with teams and provide guidance and expert knowledge to students throughout the competition season. Justin Jansen, Senior Electrical Engineer at Gentex, volunteers as a VEX robotics coach at Hudsonville Christian Middle School, filling a similar role to Michielsen and Fife's. Students involved in FIRST and VEX robotics build and program robots over the course of six-week seasons that are designed to complete specific tasks, with support provided by mentors and coaches with experience in STEM fields. Students then pit their robots against one another based on tasks assigned at the beginning of the season in competitions held around the country.
Fife started with FIRST robotics when his daughter joined her high school team and has continued mentoring for the past nine years in St. Joseph. Michielsen’s history with robotics competitions goes back even further than Fife’s—he was a participant on Zeeland’s FIRST team in high school from 1999-2001. As a mentor for programming students, he aims to help students design and build the robots on their own.
“My goal every year is to not to write any code myself and just be there to steer the students in the right direction,” he said.
Jansen, who got started with the program in 2021 when his daughter expressed an interest in robotics, views his role as a guide and a counselor for the team. "We ask probing questions to guide them to the answers," he said. "As mentors, we help them diagnose problems and guide them to come up with their own solutions."
Michielsen sees students latch onto the projects for FIRST competitions in a way they might not interact with normal, less-tangible schoolwork.
“This is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a real project with real deadlines given to a student. I witness a lot of them learning that they really have to work in a team and realizing they can’t do everything themselves,” he said.
Students also find a sense of confidence and belonging in developing their robots for competition and find interest in STEM careers they would have not considered before, said Fife.
The programs provide longer-term benefits for students, as well–many higher education STEM programs see robotics programs as a good precursor to being admitted to their programs. Many local schools have recognized this potential, and are creating facilities for student robotics programs on their campuses, said Jansen.<
Beyond student benefits, there’s also personal elements for Gentex mentors who support the teams.
"I found the VEX program rewarding, knowing that all mentors are directed to only mentor and guide students," said Jansen. "We don't build, we don't code."
"Some kids were interested in technology, but had never even used a screwdriver, so it was fun to see them grow and build phyisical things."
“As the ‘Ultimate Sport for the Mind,’ FIRST robot competitions might be the hardest fun you’ll ever have,” said Fife. “I get a great sense of pride and satisfaction when a student grasps a concept or idea that I’ve explained to them, and then they apply it to what they’re working on.”
“It’s amazing when former students reach out to me a few years after they graduate to use me as a reference,” said Michielsen.
Students or parents interested in FIRST and Vex Robotics programs can experience the thrill of the competitions by attending a local tournament—Grand Valley State University has a district competition around the end of each March. Different robotics programs are available through the organizations, from a fifth-and-sixth grade introduction to robotics to high-school aged teams. Additional information is available online at firstinspires.org and https://www.vexrobotics.com/competition.