FIRST Robotics Teams From Goodrich, Fremont A Family Affair

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FIRST in Michigan

SOUTHFIELD — The football coaching brothers Harbaugh wanted to beat each other’s brains out on Super Bowl Sunday.

It’ll be a little bit different kind of competition this weekend at Grand Valley State University, when FIRST Robotics holds its West Michigan District competition, and brothers Jay and Wayne TenBrink go up against each other.

FIRST Robotics is a high school competition that gives thousands of teams all ovre the world the chance to build a robot to compete in a specific game. Teams get word on the competition and receive robot kits in early January. Then, they build their robots through January and February and compete in district events throughout March, leading to a state championship in early April and a national championship in late April.

The brothers TenBrink grew up the youngest of seven children in Fremont, northwest of Grand Rapids, a small city at the southern edge of Up North probably best known as the home of Gerber baby food. Wayne TenBrink graduated from Fremont High in 1978 and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. Brother Jay graduated from Fremont in 1979 and studied mechanical engineering at Michigan State.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be an inventor,” Jay TenBrink said. “I had no idea what an engineer was, and then later I discovered what an engineer was and decided, that’s what I have to be.”

The brothers tinkered and invented their way through childhood, once memorably blowing a hole in a bathroom door with a homemade cannon. But engineering settled them down — Jay TenBrink is an engineering manager at Chrysler at its Auburn Hills tech center, Wayne TenBrink a senior product engineer at the Muskegon bearing manufacturer Kaydon Corp.

In 2001, with his son attending Goodrich High School near Flint, Jay TenBrink started mentoring the school’s FIRST Robotics team, Team 494, The Martians.

“It’s both rewarding and fun,” Jay TenBrink said of FIRST Robotics. “And of course it’s very demanding. It’s an excellent way for somebody to give back to the community, but it’s such hard work that people wouldn’t stay with it long if it wasn’t fun.”

Goodrich High actually has two teams now, having also taken on venerable Team 70, which was rechristened More Martians after the Goodrich school’s unusual mascot.

The FIRST fun spread across the state to the other TenBrink, Wayne, who became a mentor to Fremont High’s Team 1918 when the team formed in 2006. Wayne TenBrink acknowledges that he had “a lot of help from Jay” in getting the Fremont team started.

After both teams competed in earlier events at separate venues, both will be competing against each other at Grand Valley this weekend.

“When 494 and 70 go up against 1918 it’s always a good time,” Jay TenBrink said. “Over the years we’ve competed with ‘em and played against ‘em. There’s an awful lot of good people in FIRST, and you develop relationships with all kinds of people and all kinds of teams, so after a while it gets to be like going to a family reunion and playing with friends.”

Wayne TenBrink looks at it this way. “The qualification matches are set up so you don’t know who you’re against. You can be with somebody one match and against them the next match. That creates an atmosphere where everybody has to be friends with everybody. Everybody plays to win but if you lose you’re happy to see your friends win.”

This year’s game has teams competing to shoot Frisbees into targets on a wall, with bonus points for climbing up on a cage. In the initial rounds of competition, teams are assigned randomly into three-team “alliances,” one at each end of the competition field, one labeled the Blue Alliance, the other the Red Alliance. Each team gets at least a few rounds to compete. After those initial rounds, the top 16 scoring teams get to select two partners for their alliance into the elimination rounds.

During this weekend’s competition at Grand Valley, there will be only one sure winner in the stands — 92-year-old Vivian TenBrink, who will be in the stands cheering on her sons — and everybody else.

More at www.firstinmichigan.org.

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