Building the Future

Kyle Mellendorf and Ben Whipker’s enthusiasm is contagious when they talk about their latest project — the construction of a 10-by-10-foot, three-dimensional printer.

The two, both 17, began work on this remarkable project in the spring as members of Wake Robotics, a competitive robotics program based in Cary, where kids and teens ages 5 to 18 receive hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology.

Wake Robotics is  such a popular program that it will soon move from its current 3,500-square-foot space to a new 6,500-square-foot location called “The Forge Downtown” at 220 W. Chatham St.

Jason Wong, 11, center, demonstrates the capabilities of his mechanical LEGO creation at the Maker Faire show at the NC State Fairgrounds.

The group successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign in June, raising more than $40,000 to make the downtown move possible.

As members find themselves forging projects out of metal, and forging teams, robots,  friendships, and connections in the community, the name “The Forge” was only fitting.

“It may look like Wake Robotics is just now bursting onto the scene as we open The Forge Downtown, but we’ve been here for quite a while,” said former teacher Karen Mellendorf, a Wake Robotics board member and mom of four, including Kyle.

“We’ve been building a base of knowledge and a base of involved citizens for four years.”
Wake Robotics began in 2010 with just one team of 12 students interested in robotics competition. Today, the program consists of 90 students and 60 adult volunteers and professional mentors.

Organizers look forward to those numbers expanding, and expansion plans don’t stop there. They hope to offer classes and workshops to the public, bring in field trips, and more.

“There’s no shortage of ideas,” said Mellendorf.

Students might be part of a FIRST LEGO League team, programming a robot to score points by executing certain maneuvers in competition.

Or, like Kyle and Ben, they might come up with their own project and make it a reality.

The skills they develop go beyond technology. Competitions emphasize presentation skills and public speaking.

Siblings are often involved in the program, as is the case for the Mellendorfs where  Kevin, 19, Kyle, Keith, 15, and Kayla, 13, have all taken part.

Older students mentor younger ones and become leaders. In some cases, their work leads to career opportunities.

Kyle recently began an applied science apprenticeship through the NC Triangle Apprenticeship Program, a four-year program that includes both paid on-the-job training with a local employer and classes at Wake Tech Community College.

“Wake Robotics has given me confidence in what I know — to say, yes, this is the best path,” he said. “I may be wrong sometimes, but I’m comfortable enough to put it out there.”

Ben  reflects on opportunities to present to business executives and talk with CEOs.

“It’s given me the chance to talk to so many people,” he said. “I’ve been able to convey my ideas and reach a comfort level talking to higher-ups.”

The group continues to seek additional funding to grow. The Kickstarter got them in the door, but funds are needed for everything from wiring the building, to furniture and storage, said Ben’s mom, Linda Whipker, president and co-founder of Wake Robotics.

Currently, the group relies on sponsors and grants to offset costs.

For the parents who work tirelessly for this completely volunteer-fueled program, their children’s success is the payoff.

Rob Mackie, a technical leader at Cisco Systems and vice president of Wake Robotics, has three children involved in the program. The oldest, Maria, is approaching college and dreaming of going on to graduate studies.

“Wake Robotics has provided a place for my daughter to explore her interests and her future,” Mackie said. “She thought she wanted to build robots. She learned to build them.  

“But more importantly to me, through the (guidance) and interactions with the professional volunteers at Wake Robotics, she’s found that she can grow into leadership.”

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