From forklifts to popcorn machines: Meet the WJ robotics team


Courtesy of Mario Kalpakis

The Robotics Team poses for a group picture at this year’s Botball tournament in Washington DC. This competition is the highlight of the team’s year as they get to show off the months of work that they put into the robot.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after school in room 211A, you will find 15 bright, excited and innovative students tackling the construction of multiple robots. The WJ Robotics team, founded in 2017, is a group of students with aspirations in the fields of computer science and engineering. Every year, they compete in a highly prestigious robotics event called “Botball” in Washington DC. The event requires competitors to come prepared with two fully-functioning robots that align with the rubric provided to the team at the beginning of the school year. Just last month, the team was successfully awarded a “Judges Choice” for their spectacular forklift robot that has the capability to pick objects up and move them around a given space.

“Building the forklift robot was a lot of work. With almost every robot we build, there is a ton of trial and error. We take our initial idea, modify it, try building it and then almost always completely change it. It’s just a part of the process but the constant modifications are key to a successful robot,” Robotics team president and junior Mario Kalpakis said.

Team members Casimir Lausten and Elizabeth Furtak set up their forklift robot for evaluation. This robot took the team months to build but was ultimately successful in earning a Judges’s Choice. (Courtesy of Mario Kalpakis)

In the end, senior Casimir Lausten worked with a few other team members to finalize the forklift. After a lot of trial and error, he finally helped create a mechanism that worked reliably every time.

“We used a motor to spin a belt that went around two wheels to raise and lower the claw…getting the code right so that the robot consistently moved how we wanted it to was the hardest thing to do,” Lausten said.

When the team isn’t strategically constructing incredible pieces of technology, they often talk and get to know one another.

“The robotics team has really become somewhat of a family. We grow really close throughout the school year and the competition aside, it is a great space to get to know some really cool people. For anyone who has struggled to make friends in high school, this team can very quickly become that friend group you were looking for,” Kalpakis said.

Not only does the team work on competition-oriented projects, but it also helps out in the community whenever it can.

“This year, the booster club found that their popcorn machine in the concessions stand had broken. We stepped in and helped to rebuild the machine so that the stand could continue to sell popcorn during games…though we haven’t done tons of work with community-based projects like this one, it is definitely something that we’d love to help out with more moving forward,” Kalpakis said.

Whether you’re looking to hone your computer science or engineering skills, searching for a friend group, or wanting to take part in more community projects, the robotics team is open to all who want to get involved. No prior experience is necessary and no matter your background, any student is welcome to join.

Moving into next year, the team aims to build something that resembles a military tank and is committed to placing in the top three at the Botball tournament.

“We’d love to grow our team and are always looking for new people who are excited about our work. We have a lot of great goals for next year and starting in the fall, you can feel free to join our team Discord and we will help you get involved,” Kalpakis said.