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Meet The Steampunk Squirrels, 4 Von Steuben Students Who Built A Friendship Around Robotics

“The most important reason to have programs like this is to open opportunities and give kids experience in situations where they can see what they’re capable of in these STEM fields,” one Von Steuben teacher said.

The Steampunk Squirrels in their classroom workshop on March 2, 2022. Left to right: Tristan Workman, Hugo Correa, Matthew Gonzalez and Alex Arroyo.
Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH PARK — The Von Steuben High School robotics team just got back from a state competition — but the students are already hard at work to bring home a championship their senior year.

The group, dubbed the Steampunk Squirrels, is compromised of juniors Hugo Correa, Tristan Workman, Alex Arroyo and Matthew Gonzalez and their robot, Boon. They competed at last month’s Illinois VRC High School State Championship, a competition featuring more than 60 robotics teams from across the state. It has challenges the students’ robots must overcome via remote control or programmed actions.

The Squirrels made it to the playoffs, but they were eliminated in the first round.

The trip to state was a long time coming for the team. They qualified to compete in their freshman and sophomore years, but COVID-19 forced the competitions to be canceled. With their senior year starting in the fall, the members said they’re already gearing up to take one last shot at winning a state title.

“We have the whole summer to work on this, too, right? We can start our robot early. We haven’t done that before because of COVID,” Workman said. “So, we can start devising a plan at the beginning of summer, so that will be awesome.”

The Steampunk Squirrels and their robot Boon compete against another team Feb. 26, 2022.

The students’ success in learning robotics reflects a broader effort at Von Steuben to provide mentorship and opportunities in the STEM fields, said Julio Mendez, one of the coaches of the robotics club. 

The Steampunk Squirrels met during one of Von Steuben’s engineering camps for local grade-school students and incoming freshmen. Students at the camp learn the fundamentals of building robots, and there are competitions.

The camp gives students hands-on experience with STEM skills outside of a classroom setting, including building a robot and running it through an obstacle course, Mendez said. 

“The most important reason to have programs like this is to open opportunities and give kids experience in situations where they can see what they’re capable of in these STEM fields,” said Mendez, who has coached the robotics club the past four years with teachers Brian Huang and Mike Stachrya.

Von Steuben, 5039 N. Kimball Ave., serves about 1,651 students, the majority of whom are Latino and from low-income families, according to CPS.  

“A lot of our students, especially students of color, might not have that experience and might not then know they might make a good engineer, technician, mathematician or scientist,” Mendez said. “That’s the most important part of that robotics program: to give them space to learn about themselves and their potential.”

The four students joined the robotics club when they started at Von Steuben. Workman said he likes the freedom the club gives students.

The Squirrels came up with their team name during their freshman year because they wanted something with alliteration that would also sound a bit “quirky,” Workman said.

Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
The Steampunk Squirrels created this robot, named Boon, to compete during the Feb. 26, 2022 state-wide competition.

“We’re in robotics, and we all like steampunk, the style of it. I was thinking of something that would go with steampunk, and squirrels came to mind. We all thought it sounded pretty good,” Workman said. 

Each member of the Steampunk Squirrels has their own responsibility at competitions. 

Correa fabricates the team’s robots. He credits his dad, a mechanic, and his uncle, an electrician, with fostering his interest in building things. His favorite superhero is Batman, in part due the gadgets the character builds, and he got into robotics because he wanted to experiment with machines that perform specific tasks, he said.

“I guess you can say that overcoming challenges intrigues me,” Correa said.

Workman is the team’s pilot, and he modified a wireless video game controller to control Boon remotely. 

Workman’s a fan of video games and remote-controlled cars, so modifying a controller with a similar design to the ones he uses to play games allowed him to take advantage of his hands’ muscle memory when piloting the robot during competitions, he said. 

Competitions feature a mix of challenges, including having the student-built robots perform actions without anyone controlling them. In those instances, Arroyo’s programing skills come into play. 

Arroyo writes the code needed for the robot to perform autonomous actions while managing its power supply. He’s always been interested in computers and how video games are made, he said.

Typically, kits used to build robots come with a stock program, but Arroyo prefers to write his own from scratch to get the most out of his team’s custom creations. 

“And during the competition, we’re always trying to improve the robot, making last-minutes changes based on what other teams are doing in order to make our robot better,” Arroyo said.

Gonzalez, the team’s manager, also developed an interest in robotics thanks to his uncle, an engineer who repairs delivery trucks for UPS. Gonzalez likes to pick his uncle’s brain about how to repair the regular wear-and-tear the delivery trucks experience. 

During competitions, Gonzalez keeps the Steampunk Squirrels apprised of what other teams are doing while managing the tournament chaos to make sure everyone has the tools and information they need to perform their role.

The Squirrels sometimes have to work with “allied” teams during competitions, during which Gonzalez takes the lead in talking with other team managers to devise strategies. And when rival teams are doing practice runs, Gonzalez takes meticulous notes on the competition. 

“It’s scouting: checking the enemy teams, what they have and if we should be worried,” Gonzalez said. 

Though the Steampunk Squirrels didn’t win state this time around, the team members said they were grateful for the experience to finally compete.

“This year, with the competitions being back, it was really nice to come back to state again and actually be able to see how we would do,” Arroyo said.

Credit: Provided by Julio Mendez.
Members of the Steampunk Squirrels compete during a state-wide competition Feb. 26, 2022.

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Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

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