Tar Heel of the Week

Cary's Rob Mackie taps kids' creativity with robots

CorrespondentFebruary 2, 2013 


Rob Mackie, right, advises, from left, Tanner castle, 12, Bryson Mackie, 13, and Blake Ruegg, 13, on the construction of a robot part Thursday, January 31, 2013, during a club meeting at Mackie's home in Raleigh. Wake Robotics, formed in 2010 is a non-profit aimed at promoting teens' interest and learning in science, engineering, and technology through robotics.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Robert Andrew Mackie Born: July 4, 1962 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Residence: Cary Career: Software engineer, Cisco Systems; volunteer, Wake Robotics Education: B.S., Computer Science, N.C. State University Family: Wife, Sally; daughter, Maria Hunter, 15; sons, Bryson, 13, and Gray, 8 Fun Fact: Mackie recalls helping his father on one of the projects he led at IBM by testing the now-ubiquitous machines that are used to scan groceries at stores. “They wanted to make sure that it would still scan even if you weren’t careful, and 6-year-olds are not careful,” he says.

— Rob Mackie tends to dive headlong into a new project. It’s a mentality that led him to help create a scholarship so he could study Russian in the Soviet Union, and to build his own fully functioning electric car.

So maybe it isn’t surprising that only months after his children became involved with the Wake Robotics team, the software engineer bought his parents’ former home for the express purpose of turning it into a robot-building paradise.

“I usually don’t do things halfway,” says Mackie, 50, who previously ran an English language school and a windsurfing business. “I don’t hold a lot back.”

But what is surprising is the wide-ranging impact the modest home on the outskirts of Cary, nicknamed “The Forge,” has had on the club, which is in the midst of a six-week-long competition to build a Frisbee-throwing robot.

What started as a site for a dozen or so high schoolers to learn and build now buzzes with the activity of about 60 students from ages 6 to 18. On most nights and weekends, they tinker with LEGO blocks in its back bedrooms, learn to use power tools in the workshop, and engage in the kind of cooperative learning that is the club’s ultimate goal.

Linda Whipker, a home-schooling mother who co-founded the 3-year-old club, says the group has been transformed with Mackie’s help.

“We’re operating on a whole new level from where we were,” says Whipker, president of Wake Robotics. “He has given us more space, more tools, and a huge amount of energy. He never runs out of ideas.”

A creative youth

Mackie spent much of his youth building items ranging from tree houses to computers only miles from the house where his children now tinker. Back then, he played in a swath of woods behind his house that Interstate 40 now traverses.

Mackie says he inherited his passion for creating from his father, a Canadian immigrant with a lifelong passion for working with his hands.

Part of a large family that escaped from poverty in Scotland to Canada, his father had planned to find a career as a cabinet maker. But his teachers persuaded him that he should go to college instead.

The elder Mackie joined the military, which allowed him to become a U.S. citizen and go to college through the G.I. Bill. He studied computer engineering and had a long career with IBM, which brought the family to Raleigh when Rob Mackie was 2.

Mackie says he inherited both his father’s acumen for the technical and his craftsman’s feel for design.

When he was 6, Mackie built an automated dustpan to imitate the machine in the Cat in the Hat book. At 12, he created a computer that could count the number of people who entered and exited a room, and turned the light on and off at the appropriate times.

Mackie changed gears when he went to college, where he studied Russian and French. Once he had taken all of the available Russian classes, he wanted to study abroad there, a bold plan during the Cold War. When there was no such program available, he helped install a partial scholarship as president of the Russian language club.

He got a job with the Berlitz English-language school in Raleigh before he finished his degree. He went on to direct a Berlitz school in Virginia.

When he returned to Raleigh, he worked for a while doing ski tours before he started his own business, Wave Sailboard School.

He met his wife during that time, and decided to pursue a more stable career. So he finished his degree, this time in computer engineering, and went to work at Cisco Systems, where he now works developing wireless technologies.

Passing it on

Robotics was a good fit for Mackie’s children, with whom he had shared his enthusiasm for making things; his daughter, now active on the robotics team, grew up making her own puzzles with a scroll saw. And they had watched him build his own electric car, which he still periodically drives.

His son, now 13, was the first to join Wake Robotics, which was at that time meeting in a town house with its larger tools kept at a separate location. His youngest, now 8, is also involved.

Mackie’s father died around the same time, and he saw an opportunity to boost the robotics club in a way his father would have appreciated. So he bought the house from the estate, and opened it to the group while paying the bills to keep the operation running.

At the time, Wake Robotics consisted mainly of Team Pyrotech, a group of high school students building a robot for their third national FIRST Robotics Competition next month. The team has won awards at the two previous competitions.

But the larger space drew other student teams there to practice. Now, a dozen or so separate entities share the name Wake Robotics. As the group has grown, the residential location of The Forge has become less practical. The group is hoping to find a larger commercial space soon, perhaps with help from a corporate sponsor.

But the arrangement has built the county’s robotics community, and helped fulfill some of the club’s nontechnical goals, such as teaching its members to collaborate and communicate, and to promote science and technology in the community.

The high school students have become mentors to the younger students in the same way that the adults, many of whom are professional scientists and engineers, help them.

The group started conducting workshops for others interested in starting their own robotics teams, and forged a partnership with one team from a rural area that lacked needed tools and expertise.

“It was really interesting what happened when we moved here,” Mackie says. “The people involved in it began to see opportunities as a community.”

Kevin Mellendorf, a home-schooled senior from Cary who has been on the team since it started, says the collaboration has been inspiring.

“It’s very cool because anyone who’s here is able to ask anyone else, ‘How do I do this?’ or ‘What do you think of this idea?’ ” Mellendorf says.

On a recent evening, a group of students in the living room watched YouTube videos of other teams’ machines; the competition observes a policy of “gracious professionalism” in which the teams share ideas and help one another.

Whiteboards scattered around were filled with formulas and sketches. In the workshop, other groups of students worked on prototypes of the Frisbee shooter. Later, they all gathered to discuss priorities over Rice Krispies Treats.

Mellendorf says some of the most important lessons he’s learned are the least technical. Hardly willing to speak when he first joined, he now chimes in on the discussion easily and has spoken to crowds of more than 100 people about robotics.

“I might have been able to do all of this stuff before,” says Mellendorf, 18. “But being able to explain what I understand would be a completely different story.”

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