Von Steuben robotics team’s trip to nationals paid for — and then some

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Von Steuben physics teacher Manny Aldana (second from left) works with students Karen Moy, Safa Azad and Sophia Villacarlos on their robot. | Patty Wetli/For the Sun-Times

Von Steuben High School’s robotics team is definitely headed to April’s national competition after a flurry of donations assured they could pay for the trip.

It’s been a rapid reversal of fortune for the squad, which, less than two weeks ago, was struggling to raise money to attend the U.S. Open Robotics Championship in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The plight of Von Steuben’s scrappy all-girls team, the first from Chicago Public Schools to qualify for nationals, was reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and captured the hearts of people across the city and the country.

Donations poured in — more than $20,000 so far — and today the team not only has the cash to pay for hotels and transportation to the competition, but enough money to secure the future of Von Steuben’s robotics program for years to come.

The students have been floored by the response, said Manny Aldana, Von Steuben physics teacher and the team’s faculty adviser.

“They couldn’t believe it. We were all surprised by the amount of support,” Aldana said. “They were like, ‘Who are these people?’”

Principal Laura LeMone said she was particularly gratified to see so many checks arrive at the school accompanied by notations of “Class of . . . .”

“People are so excited to help their alma mater,” she said. “It’s been an incredibly positive and uniting force for the school. It’s elevated robotics to a cachet it maybe doesn’t always have.”

Aldana has gladly accepted non-monetary gifts as well, among them, a pair of laptops.

“Usually we have to use my personal laptop for coding,” he said.

Some of the money has already been put to use buying new materials for the robot the team is building for nationals, but the squad has opted not to spend its entire windfall on a single bot.

“Yes, we are thinking about buying snazzier components, but I’m very proud of the fact they don’t want to splurge on everything,” said Aldana.

Sustainability of Von Steuben’s robotics program three, four or five years down the road is the top priority, he said.

Robotics is an expensive sport, with robots costing $1,500 to $2,000 each, which is one reason programs often fail to flourish at the city’s schools, Aldana said.

He credited LeMone for finding creative ways to finance Von Steuben’s team, but is excited that she won’t have to fill the gap — at least in the near future.

Aldana’s dream would be to find ongoing sponsors for the team, which would allow the program to expand to more students and conduct more outreach to Von Steuben’s neighboring elementary schools.

But at the moment, the focus is on preparing for nationals.

“They definitely are progressing,” Aldana said of his team: Safa Azad, 16; Karen Moy, 15; Hikari Nakasone, 14; and Sophia Villacarlos, 16.

“They have a plan. They have a timeline. I’m confident they’ll represent us well,” he said.

A GoFundMe account has been closed due to administrative reasons. Donations are still being accepted on the robotics team’s website. Von Steuben is at 5039 N. Kimball Ave.

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