Robotics program aims to fuel talent pipeline, reduce stigma in STEM education

Marjie Jenkins is on a mission. And when she’s on a mission, watch out.

“When I’m excited about something I don’t walk. I run, ”says the 39-year-old coordinator of the Macomb Automation and Robotic Zone (MARZ) in the Velocity Center in Sterling Heights.

MARZ, a nonprofit organization established in 2019 as a collaboration between education and industry partners in Macomb County, is a place for students K-12 and beyond, interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to learn about robotics and automation with industry experts.

It is also a place for companies to connect with potential interns and employees as part of the county’s “Fueling the Talent Pipeline” initiative to grow the future workforce in these areas.

According to the MARZ and Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development websites, Michigan has one of the highest STEM employment growths in the country and one of the fastest growing occupations in Sterling Heights is in the engineering sector. The city ranks fourth in the US in concentration of engineering jobs with a high demand for talent by three US automakers, General Dynamics and many tier-one suppliers. Between October 2021 to last May, there were nearly 7,000 open job postings in STEM industries in Macomb County.

MARZ is especially geared to students interested in FIRST Robotics Competitions (FRC), where high school teams build their own full-size robots to compete with each other, from the local level up to the international FIRST Championship, held this past April in Houston.

Marjie Jenkins knows her audience, because she’s traveled the same path. Photo: David Lewinski.

It would seem there was hardly a better choice to lead MARZ than Jenkins, who just celebrated 23 years in FIRST competitions – including a near-win at the world championships as a student at Pontiac Central High School. She continued to mentor and volunteer through college – she earned her degree in mechanical engineering from Oakland Univeristy in 2006 – and professional life.

Even today, in addition to her day job, she volunteers as a lead mentor for an FRC team in Bloomfield Hills and is the event coordinator for the Michigan State Championship.

In her position since May 2021, Jenkins says her main role is to get resources for teams around STEM and robotics. “I also have LEGO kits to teach kids about physics or building or programming,” she says. “What kid doesn’t like playing with LEGOs?”

The job is fun but it’s also a labor of love for Jenkins who says one of the best parts is that every day is different.

“I don’t have a typical day or week. This week was busy. We did ‘Pick Your Brain’ last night, “she says of a program she hosted where a robotics alum, now at Wayne State University, talked to students virtually about how he got involved. “He was actually going to be a zookeeper before he got into robotics,” she says.

Once a month she has someone from different industries talk about their job. Another day Jenkins will have a board meeting, or meet with someone from the Society of Automotive Engineers. And she’s got plenty of plans for summer workshops and other ideas.

In May she hosted the first MARZ Middle School Scrimmage at Velocity Center. They hosted nearly 30 students making up teams from Jefferson Middle School, L’Anse Creuse, Richmond and Armada, all competing purely for fun.

“Instead of a tournament where you have to keep score they can bring robots and get together and learn from each other. The plan is to do that more often, ”says Jenkins, who wants to ramp up middle school involvement (she says Macomb County has about 30 teams compared to about 100 in Oakland County).

Jenkins’ big dream, though, is to make MARZ into something like the FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University in Flint.

“I’m trying to get some of the MARZ board to go and show them the project I want to create. I’ve shown them pictures but it’s different when you’re in space, ”she says.

That space, according to its website, opened in 2014 as the first of its kind on any university campus in the country, providing build spaces for FIRST teams, a regulation size practice field, multiple labs for machining, design, 3D printing and strategizing.

They also have space to house teams that might be homeless, Jenkins says. “I want to have a place for teams that need a place to work. I don’t want there to be a reason that kids don’t have this opportunity. ”

Jenkins sees MARZ as a way to remove some of the disparity between “the haves and have nots in Macomb County.” She points to cities like New Haven and Centerline, which have fewer resources to compete with bigger programs, which have more money, opportunities for team sponsorships and a strong base of industry mentors.

Growing up in Pontiac with no particular goal of getting into engineering or robotics, Jenkins could be a poster child for the program. To raise funds for the team it was either selling raffle tickets or getting money from your parents, she says.

She jokes that she only joined the school robotics team in her sophomore year because her best friend was on it and always traveling. It was a way to spend more time with her.

Until then, Jenkins says she had a single notion since age eight – to become a marine biologist because that was one job her mother said she could do if she wanted to work with dolphins and whales.

What kept Jenkins involved in robotics was the team’s mentor, a high school teacher whom she says is still a big influence in her life. “Lo and behold, it ended up being something I really enjoyed. I thought it was so fun to tinker and make stuff with the engineers. ”

While she sees room for growth in Macomb County, Jenkins says overall robotics is booming. “There are more teams in Michigan now than even at the world championship,” she says, referring to her high school days. She says this past year Michigan had nearly 500 teams.

She wants that number to grow but there are challenges. “I still don’t see enough girls,” Jenkins says, calling herself a bit of a “unicorn” when she was in school.

She is doing what she can to change that. For example, she helped start an all-girls tournament in the state in the off season. She says she also helped to get more underserved communities involved. “It’s great, especially for me coming from an underserved community.”

Another challenge? The “stigma,” she says, the misconception that to be part of a team you have to be into robotics.

Jenkins tells people to think of a team as a small business: “You don’t have to be into robotics to be on a team. You need people to do marketing. PR, public speaking. All these different skills can be used on a robotics team. ”

Mike Savage, a science and physics teacher as well as coach for Romeo High School’s robotics team, the Byting Bulldogs, agrees that the misconception is a constant.

“We see kids who even if they’re not into robots can totally be a contributor,” he says. “It’s kind of a battle to tell them you don’t have to run a mill or turn wrenches. You can update websites, design shirt logos, do newsletters and then all the STEM stuff. ”

Being part of a team is a great way to learn about life, he says. It builds confidence and teaches kids to communicate and rely on each other. “You need to work with other people over different aspects of the project. So many things have to come together successfully. ”

Savage, 45, started the FIRST robotics team as a teacher in Almont in 2014 as a way to get into the competitions and meet people. As a small team with few resources, he says meeting Jenkins back then was invaluable.

“Marjie has always been that person to let you know it’s okay to ask for help. She was like that when I met her as a brand new team, ”says Savage, who says she is the perfect choice for MARZ. “It’s very easy to fall behind, get left behind. She was that person you could turn to. She still is. ”

Nolan VanWormer, a mentor for the Steel Armadillos, a community team in Warren, says when Jenkins’ name came up for the MARZ position, “We all said you need to hire her. Everyone vouched for her commitment to her students. ”

VanWormer, 26, a systems engineer at McNaughton-McKay Electric Company in Madison Heights, caught the bug in 2014 watching his first competition. He volunteered the next year with Jenkins.

“The work she does is incredible,” he says. As for the kids, he says it’s priceless for them to get hands-on engineering experience, to see how they’re learning in class is applied in the real world. “Just getting their hands on tools that most high schoolers don’t get exposed to.”

These days, Jenkins, who shares her Troy home with her two dogs and a cat, has a richer life because of robotics. “It’s a fun way to meet people and make friends,” she says.

What’s most gratifying is working with the kids. “I’m happy to just sit off to the side and watch that light bulb turn on. All of a sudden they’ll be struggling with something and something clicks. It’s the best thing in the world. ”

The appreciation goes both ways, says Savage: “You can see the adoration the kids have for her and the caring she has for them.”

Jenkins, who says she can’t have children – she’s had health challenges and was treated for a cancer diagnosis in 2014 – says that makes the kids extra special to her. “The robotic kids are my kids. Every one is part of my legacy. ”

As for that dream of making MARZ into a major FIRST robotics center?

“I see it as maybe being in five years. But I’d be really excited if it happens in two, ”she says.

With her passion, it’s a distinct possibility.

“I’m one of those people – especially if I’m passionate about something – I have a hard time walking. I like to run. ”

For more information or how to get involved with MARZ or start a team, contact Marjie Jenkins by email at [email protected] or visit the website at https://www.macombmarz.org.

All photos by David Lewinski.

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